The Dalai Lama once called Rachel Louise Snyder spoiled. Although he meant it in the context of American luxury when she interviewed him in his exiled home in Dharamsala, perhaps his sentiment could also be applied to the incredibly fortuitous kick-off of Snyder’s writing career. Under the guidance of the masterful Tim O’Brien, Snyder formally studied fiction in grad school at Emerson College, but on a whim had the first personal essay she had ever written accepted for publication by Mademoiselle. Snyder’s early good luck—and the fact that she could possibly support herself writing nonfiction while incorporating her love for travel—compelled her to pursue journalism. Since then her writing has taken her around the world covering a range of issues from global trade to domestic abuse for The New Yorker, The New York Times and NPR, among others. Yet she never abandoned her early affinity for fiction, even after the success of her nonfiction book, Fugitive Denim. She wrote two “failed” novels in the interim, and now she’s published her first novel, What We’ve Lost Is Nothing.
What We’ve Lost Is Nothing follows the tense aftermath of a string of burglaries in an affluent part of Oak Park, a diverse suburb of Chicago known for its extreme wealth and poverty. The ensemble of victims residing on sleepy Ilios Lane must confront what this violation means—both taking inventory of what has been stolen from them personally, and what has been stolen from their “good” neighborhood. The investigation into the families’ lives opens up a complex psychology of a community in transit—from the white mother who works for a Diversity Assurance program helping to integrate the area, to the immigrant Cambodian family struggling to adapt to American life.
“What connects for me with the novel and everything else that I write, is that I’m always writing about people’s survival,” Snyder says. Born in Chicago, Snyder worked with the Oak Park Diversity Assurance Program for six years and had always wanted to write about it. “In my experience in Oak Park, people are very earnest and very dedicated to living in a diverse world,” she says. She admits their idealism doesn’t always work, but she applauds the people who started the early integration efforts for envisioning a better way to be in the world. “I was just a little white girl from the western suburbs, and it just never occurred to me that there was such a lack of diversity where I lived, or that having people with different experiences around you created a richer life for yourself.”
Many of the characters in the novel grapple with issues of diversity as they try to make sense of their new reality post-burglary. For example, the mother who was always the biggest proponent for diversity finds herself lost “on the wrong side of the tracks,” and is taunted by a group of black kids. If her fears are in her head or real becomes part of the escalating drama.
Snyder is acutely aware of the sensitivities of exploring such issues. She shares the same agent as Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, and is weary of some of the potential criticisms. “As a white middle-class, middle-aged woman writing about race, I do have questions about how much can I write about this. What right do I have to write about it? What view am I entitled to? But I had to put those questions out of my mind,” she explains. She believes the task of the fiction writer is to imagine a world you don’t inhabit by exploring a variety of viewpoints. “My own execution might not be perfect, but my motives are pretty pure.”
Snyder’s penchant for reporting seeps into her storytelling as she carefully documents a chronology over a two-day span of the crime. She weaves in community listservs, blog posts and newspaper articles that she compares to the Greek chorus of The Iliad providing commentary on the unfolding narrative. As she was imagining her novel, she went through a period of deep immersion in The Iliad and was captivated by questions of fate and how it is known that Achilles is fated to kill Hector, yet the gods never intervene.
In homage to The Iliad, What We’ve Lost Is Nothing opens with an epigraph from Homer, and Snyder also names the invented Illios Lane after another word for Troy. There is a heavy dose of Greek melodrama in the ricochet of actions that result from Snyder’s psychological crime story. But there’s also a discerning meditation on fate, which will make readers rethink their own neighborhood and the lives of their neighbors.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. A recipient of a Fulbright and a Boston Review “Discovery” Prize, her book of poetry, What Is Not Missing Is Light, will be published this fall.