What We’ve Lost is Nothing by Rachel Louise Snyder

“For us, what we’ve lost is nothing compared to what we in this neighborhood, on this street, will always have.”

what we've lostRachel Louise Snyder’s debut novel is a look at the 24 hours after a mass burglary of all the houses on the same street in the Chicago neighborhood of Oak Park in the spring of 2004.  The neighborhood is in flux and Ilios Lane is located in a tenuous spot between whitewashed suburbia and the rougher crime-riddled area of west Chicago. It is an area that is trying to diversify and establish a feeling of community, but with this invasive crime that shocked everyone in Oak Park, the delicate layers begin to peel back.

Snyder is able to easily investigate the lives and reactions of each resident on Ilios Lane, and how the burglaries have effected them and reveal secrets that they once held. There is Arthur Gardenia the lifelong bachelor who suffers from a debilitating eye disease that leaves him almost completely blind, Sofia and her Cambodian-born parents who raise suspicion because they had the least amount of things stolen, the Francophile chef Étienne Lenoir who might not be who he says he is. There are other neighbors, as well, but the book really roots itself with the McPhersons.

Fifteen-year-old cheerleader Mary Elizabeth McPherson was home with her neighbor Sofia while the burglaries took place. Skipping school to take ecstasy and lie under the McPherson’s dining room table, Snyder aptly shows comparison between the real horrors of what has happened with the absurdity of questioning a high teenager. With the police and her parents finally at the house, all Mary can elicit from her mouth is the word “fuchsia.”

Of course, the main focus is less about the actual crime and more about the residents of the street. Susan McPherson (Mary’s mother) is a residential escort–a title she cringes at–who tries to show apartments and the neighborhood to potential new residents. She emphasizes the great qualities and diversity of the neighborhood, but after the burglaries, both she and her husband’s blissful assumption of racial coexistence is upended. In her afterword, Snyder includes an interesting history of the community diversity programs in Chicago and her own experiences with it. As a building manager she learned “many lessons…perhaps none has been more profound that the realization that if you come from the majority culture you have the luxury of racial oblivion, by which I mean you need not think that race is part of everything.”

When representing issues of race and inequality, the creator always has that burden of painting something that is not heavy-handed (re: the film Crash or the elegant but flawed Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda). Snyder succeeds for the most part (although I do have some nitpicky issue with the ending, which I won’t reveal and is almost not even worth bringing up because it’s so minute) and she is able to evoke intrigue and suspense in a novel that is constrained to a 24-hour period that mostly takes place in one confined area.

I most enjoyed the moments with Mary McPherson. Because she was home while the burglaries were taking place, she experiences a new-found popularity at school the next day. Even the popular kid, Caz, who should be voted the most likely to appear  on the registered sex offender list, becomes highly interested in her. Mary’s heart is atwitter with the attention from Caz and Snyder posits a character that, at first, could be dismissed as a mindless cheerleader, but really, is the most complicated of them all. The back and forth between Mary’s infatuation with Caz and her friendship with the blind neighbor, Arthur, comes to head during the novel’s climax. It was so visceral and calming at the same time.

Although, the events of the novel take place ten years in the past, the feelings and predicaments, of course, could be prescribed to now. The neighborhood is pulsating with the ideas of inclusion and community harmony, but the restlessness of identity and safety (post-9/11 is mentioned in a couple of neighbor exchanged emails) is oozing out at the seams.

When Michael McPherson says to the news crews lined up on Ilois Lane that what we’ve lost is nothing, these few words are eagerly expounded as elegant by the other residents. But, as the novel moves on, these words are far more complicated than when they were first uttered. The neighbors re-exam themselves and their fellow burghers; they thought their losses were material “but they did not feel material at all, somehow.” In the later pages, Snyder reveals how the rest of some of the neighbors’ lives panned out; how this one event tied them together or unraveled them completely, putting them down a darker path or one less expected, making the characters feel less like players and more like fleshed-out individuals. 

***

What We’ve Lost is Nothing is released on January 21 in the US. If you’re in NYC next week, the book launch is taking place at the Powerhouse Arena.

 

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