“Why are Americans so lacking in spiritual life?” a young Indian student asks Monica Murphy, a US doctor working at a Catholic mission in his village, early in Valerie Miner’s new novel. To its credit, “Traveling With Spirits’’ doesn’t so much answer the question as probe it, exploring possible causes and treatments for spiritual pain.
Murphy has arrived in India to work at a mission hospital in the foothills of the Himalayas. Through flashbacks, we learn that she was born and raised in a “provincial and stifling Irish Catholic’’ neighborhood of St. Paul. Her father, a bus driver, abandoned his family when Monica was a child, and, though fiercely committed to her devout mother, Monica left her working-class struggles and faith behind upon becoming a doctor.
But over the years, Monica has grown weary of insurance battles and colleagues who focus more on marketing and productivity measures than on good patient care. She finds herself wary of committing to her boyfriend, Eric, angered and saddened by her alienation from her sister, Jeanne, and baffled by her close friend Beata’s religious faith. So when her mother’s death leaves her reeling, Monica accepts Beata’s invitation to attend a church-sponsored weekend retreat. There, she meets a priest whose counsel and invitation ultimately lead her to India.
The novel hopscotches between Monica’s pre-India life and her time in Moorty, the village where she becomes friends with Sudha, a Bombay-born teacher educated in Scotland. She enters into a romantic relationship with Ashok, a philosophy professor in New Delhi who went to a US graduate school.
Indeed, almost all of the major characters we meet in the Moorty portions of the book are expats or returning nationals trying to live with both their love of and exasperation with the contradictions of contemporary India, a developing nation with a burgeoning middle class but appalling malnourishment and illiteracy rates . As Ashok describes New Delhi, “Once you recover from gawking at tree trimmers on swaying elephants, once you get used to cows delaying traffic on Kasturba Gandhi Marg, you start noticing the Reebok and Nike logos, the mock fast food outlets.”
Paradox doesn’t just surround her. Monica’s internal conflicts — about prescribing simple abstinence as opposed to contraceptives, about how to reconcile faith and acceptance of a God so cruel and unfair as to allow war and untimely deaths — are what give this novel its narrative momentum.
In fact, I wish Miner had allowed us to linger a bit longer in the thorny terrain of contradiction. Her depictions of New Delhi and Moorty are vivid, and she is adept at lightly weaving in snippets of political and cultural history to lend context to her scenes. But at times her touch is a bit too light.
We’re told that India has a Catholic population of about
6 million people, but little about how they got there or have adapted their practices. We learn that anti-Muslim and anti-colonialist sentiment lives on, fanned by a Hindu Nationalist political organization called the RSS, but little about their origins or influence.
We see that Monica is uncomfortable with the unsolicited baptisms and evangelistic practices of colleagues, but never get an explanation of what role Catholic missions are intended to play in non-Catholic countries. And characteristic of this tendency to flit is the novel’s ending, with a last-minute introduction of new characters and a cursory summation of what’s transpired since the climax.
But these flaws are not fatal. After all, this novel is a travelogue of sorts, touring and touching down not just in locales, but in beliefs. To its credit, it raises profound questions and avoids glib answers.