Title: The Lotus Eaters
Author: Tatjana Soli
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from TLC Book Tours
First line: The city teetered in a dream state.
Helen Adams is a photojournalist in Vietnam – one of the only women covering actual combat, recon, and rescue assignments. She comes to Vietnam as an idealistic college student, determined to make a name for herself, tell the story of the war – and discover the truth of her brother’s death in country. During her years in Vietnam, Helen will learn to love two completely different men – and will learn that the true human cost of war is nothing that can be captured in numbers or photographs.
I have a complicated relationship with Vietnam War fiction. I am drawn to read it, and yet it is always an emotionally draining experience. My dad served two tours in Vietnam, one on land and one on an aircraft carrier, and it is a time in his life that he speaks very little about. The first book about Vietnam I read was The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I read it in high school in an attempt to understand that side of Dad, to maybe get a glimpse of what he experienced while in country.
Dad was not in the infantry, nor was he army, and so he wasn’t involved in combat. He worked with a construction battalion and also worked as a medical corpsman, carrying the wounded to safety. He will tell funny stories of his time in the Navy, but never talks about the work he did or the things he saw. And so each time I read a novel set during this war, I am searching for glimpses of my dad, even though I know I won’t find them. I did, however, feel a jolt of strange recognition when Cam Ranh Bay was mentioned in The Lotus Eaters, since that was the base where Dad was stationed.
In The Lotus Eaters, the reader experiences the war in Vietnam through the eyes of Helen, and we watch as her idealism is eroded, bit by bit, each piece representing a person she has lost or seen killed. At first finding the American soldiers she accompanies and photographs to be her personal protectors and heroes, she begins to see the way war changes a man until he loses his humanity, and she loses her trust in her country and the military. She is drawn to the experienced photographer Sam Darrow, and afraid of the obsession she detects in him, yet unable to prevent the same obsession from taking hold in her own life.
Ms. Soli has written a devastatingly true novel – not true in the sense that it is based on a real person – but true in that it is so real and authentic that the experience of reading it is like submerging yourself in Helen’s experiences. She writes in uneven prose – gorgeous descriptive sentences interspersed with jagged fragments – so that the reader is left feeling restless, unsettled, and unsure. The journey that Helen takes from eager new journalist to jaded photographer almost hurt to read, and yet I couldn’t stop until I knew what happened.
We also experience the story through the eyes of Linh, a Vietnamese man who works as an assistant for Sam and Helen, holding close and quiet the secret of his own private war, the losses he has experienced. It is truly an amazing thing that a female author from California could capture the mind and heart of a Vietnamese man so perfectly.
As Helen and Linh’s stories being to collide, the book became even more engrossing. As I read the last chapter, with tears streaming down my face, I actually found myself mentally praying for the characters, something that only happens when I’m reading a book that has become completely real to me. I don’t know what else to say about this book except that I consider it one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
Here are some passages that stood out to me – keep in mind that these are taken from an Advanced Reader’s Copy, and the final text may be different:
The journalists were in a questionable fraternity while out in the field, squabbling and arguing among themselves, each sensing the unease of the situation. No getting around the ghoulishness of pouncing on tragedy with hungry eyes, snatching it away, glorying in its taking even among the most sympathetic: “I got an incredible shot of a dead soldier/woman/child. A real tearjerker.” Afterward, film exposed, they sat on the returning plane with a kind of postcoital shame, turning away from one another.
They would sit on the warm stones in the evening, and he would whisper his greatest fears to her. That the image betrayed one at last. It grieved and outraged, but ultimately it deadened. The first picture, or the fifth, or even the twenty-fifth still had an authority, but finally the repetition made the horror palatable. In the last few years, no matter how hard he tried, his pictures weren’t as powerful as before he had known this. Like an addict who had to keep upping the dose to maintain the same high, he found himself risking more and working harder for less return. He would never again be moved the way he was over that first picture of a dead WWII soldier. Was his own work perpetrating the same on those it came into contact with? A steady loss of impact until violence became meaningless?
“Sometimes one’s past makes it harder to understand the present. I love Americans, but I don’t know if they are good for the Vietnamese people. I want them to stay and to leave at the same time.” Linh took a deep breath, then shook his head. How could he make her see? His relationship with her, with all the Americans, genuine and false. He had wanted her to leave and had lured her to come back. That division inside him the same as his father’s uneasy relationship with the French. How could she understand? Even through all her hardship, she still saw the world through privilege. How could she know how it felt to be on the outside? Especially in one’s own country? That the Americans, in their optimism, had backed the wrong side. A side that could not hold without them.
Helen had her own geographies. She knew the land by its colors – the Mekong always greens and golds and blues, the light soft, opaque from the water on the earth and in the air. Soldiers inevitably covered with dirt, the dirt of the delta heavily mixed with clay along the waterways so that it dried whitish on the faces and bodies of both the living and the dead. The Central Highlands were a land of chiaroscuro, sharp shadows, subtle gradations so that green could range from black to the most delicate shade of moss. Forests of browns and blacks, hardwood torn up by B-52s, moonscape tracts of gray, uprooted trunks and roots creating surreal sculpture. The soil a deep, rich laterite red that rouged uniforms and faces of the soldiers and faded over time to the rusted color of dried blood.
Her geographies, too, were full of dangerous curves and valleys, she had to remain constantly in flight, never alighting in one place too long, never putting weight on the crust of the earth that might give way. A line from Tacitus was continually in her mind: In his sorrow he found one source of relief in war.
(An ARC of The Lotus Eaters was provided to me by the publisher for the purpose of reviewing it for this blog tour. The above link is an Amazon affiliate link. If you click on it and subsequently purchase anything, I will receive a small percentage in commission.)