Part-thriller, part-family saga What Could Be Saved is a compelling read. Set in Bangkok in the early 1970s and Washington DC more recently, Liese O’Halloran Schwarz’s third novel is riveting, evocative and thoughtful. It’s both full of fracture yet hopeful. She writes beautifully about family – love, loss, secrets, resentments, forgiveness, joy, acceptance and everything else that goes into being human and part of a family. And it’s a page-turner to boot.
The story begins in nearly present-day Washington DC but quickly goes back in time to the early seventies when Robert and Genevieve Preston lived in Bangkok with their young three children- Bea, Phillip, and Laura. This is a layered book with a web of intriguing, complicated relationships, not just within the Preston family themselves, but also within their cadre of Thai servants, a real Upstairs Downstairs storyline – and what happens when the two divergent worlds intersect.
This is also a sibling story- the relationship between Bea, Philip and Laura who were pretty much left to their own devices growing up in Bangkok. Their young parents were doing the best that they could but they were distracted, flawed humans. There’s that expression you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. Siblings can be incredibly annoying and yet there are ties that bind us forever.
Liese, can you comment on that?
The bonds of siblinghood go well beyond DNA — children raised together share an entire shorthand and vocabulary to which no one else in the world is privy. Growing up, you question nothing, and then eventually you go out into the world and realize that there were oddities in your upbringing—that there was a distinct and unique family culture — and the only people in the world who truly get it are your siblings. Your siblings may see and remember things quite differently to the way you do— that’s the other side of that coin. Each child has its own experience in the family. It’s as if we each carry a micro-environment around with us, made of a blend of environment, our own personal chemistry, and pure chance. Events are frequently remembered very differently by each sibling. This discrepancy becomes clearer with adult siblings, when the parents are gone, and there is no one else who remembers. I find it fascinating how subjective is our experience, how imperfectly memory captures truth.
What Could Be Saved– it’s an interesting title- it comes from a conversation between the sisters, Beatrice and Laura. Did you consider other titles before this one? Do you feel that this title resonates with the book in a larger way than just that conversation?
The title was plucked from the text by my editor, the brilliant Peter Borland, and I do feel it resonates with the book on many levels. What can be saved of memory, of love, of self, of relationships? Beyond that, what *should* be saved — is what you want at the outset of your life the thing that will really bring you the most joy? Are all of your deeply-held beliefs worth retaining? The title also communicates to the reader, before the book is opened, that the story contains an overarching optimism. I do so want the reader of one of my books to feel joy in the read — to be troubled but also happier to have lived in that story for a while.
Can you tell us about Phillip’s journey? He says at one point: “I like to think of the bees, working the flowers without a thought of past or future, doing the good thing that is right in front of them.” Please expand on this.
This bit is really about expectations — the ones we have for our lives and ourselves, how often we compare ourselves to some ideal or goal and feel we have not measured up or gotten what we deserve. Many of the characters in the book don’t live out the lives that they would have expected, if early on they’d been asked to predict how their lives would go. Philip is talking about letting go of that anxiety about what could have been, about trying to simplify your worldview, so that you might experience unclouded joy.
Here’s to unclouded joy! Thank you very much Liese- and please read the rest of my interview with Liese in 26’s monthly newsletter. Click here.