28 March 2010
Let me begin this review with thanks to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with the opportunity to read and review this book. The Lotus Eaters is a beautifully written novel winding through the nightmare that was the Viet Nam War. It takes me back to the summer I graduated from high school. In 1971, the student president visited Paris for Peace Talks and returned in sadness that the war was to continue, even in the strange and different form it had taken.
Soli’s novel is the story of Helen Adams, who is an American photojournalist, trying first to recover what she has lost in Viet Nam – her brother, who was killed. Adams is unprepared for the life she will live in Viet Nam. As she adapts to her new normal, which includes dead women and children as well as suffering on both sides, Helen falls in love with Darrow, a fellow photojournalist who is constantly chasing the next big story. Linh, Darrow’s assistant and a man torn between two countries, becomes Helen’s lover and friend. Soli explores the complex relationship that blossoms between these three people who are experiencing their own inner wars over the span of the novel.
What intrigued me most about this novel is the development of Helen. When she first arrives in Viet Nam, she begs to be embedded with the troops. Her first experience was this:
Her mouth was dry, air scraped the shallows of her lungs, as the reality of where she was took hold. Shivering from the foreign rush of terror, she felt a warm, wet sensation, and burned at the realization that she had peed herself….Nothing had prepared her for the smallness of the moment. The moment to moment boredom. Intellectually, yes, there were people on the enemy side trying to kill them. American men might die, but that was all television stuff. Being on the flat land, pricked by the dying grass, the idea that she herself could be the target of a bullet became real. (p. 92)
Over the years, Helen lost her fear. But of course, the reader wonders what else was lost with the fear. And what was gained. The novel allows for several voices to be heard and Linh’s portrait of both North and South Viet Nam during the war is beautiful and harrowing. In the end, with the war neither won nor lost, Helen wonders as she prepares to leave:
Ten years ago it had seemed the war would never end, and now all she could think, was More time, give us more time. She would continue till the end although she had lost faith in the power of pictures, because the work had become an end in itself, untethered to results or outcomes. (p. 5)
So different from the statement made by Darrow regarding why they were in Viet Nam:
“Sometimes you have to fulfill a promise in order to deserve the love you’re given. Don’t you think it’s a calling to live in danger just to capture the face of those who are suffering? To show their invisible lives to the world?” (p. 89)
Don’t miss this phenomenal book. Reading, Writing and Retirement also has a review of The Lotus Eaters. If you have time, sneak over and read her excellent review. If you are interested in the topic of Viet Nam, I also recommend Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.
TITLE: The Lotus Eaters: A Novel
AUTHOR: Tatjana Soli
RECOMMEND: I highly recommend this book as it is beautifully written and carries a powerful message.
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