Back-of-the-book blurb: On a stifling day in 1975, the North Vietnamese army is poised to roll into Saigon. As the fall of the city begins, two people make their way through the streets to escape to a new life. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, must take leave of a war she is addicted to and a devastated country she has come to love. Linh, the Vietnamese man with her, must grapple with his own conflicted loyalties of heart and homeland. As they race to leave, they play out a drama of devotion and betrayal that spins them back through twelve war-torn years, beginning in the splendor of Angkor Wat, with their mentor, larger-than-life war correspondent Sam Darrow, once Helen’s infuriating love and fiercest competitor, and Linh’s secret keeper, boss and truest friend.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: The central character in Tatjana Soli’s riveting novel set in Saigon during the height of the war in Vietnam is Helen Adams, a young photographer from California. A bit naive at the outset, Helen fears that although she left college to freelance, she may be “too late” for this war – that she may have missed all the action. As the novel, and the character, develop, Helen learns that she has a place in this war – first as the novelty of a female photographer, then, simply, as a talented photojournalist.
Helen’s character grows and changes as she gains confidence and experience, both personally and professionally. Soli lets Vietnam get into Helen’s soul - the people, the landscape, the often oppressive heat, and the customs of the area are soaked up and become part of Helen’s personality; she adapts and learns how to survive, and sometimes thrive, in this environment.
Soli’s excels at describing not only places and situations, but also the intricacies of various relationships. As Helen settles into a long-term residence in Vietnam, she straddles the line between “American press” and “expatriate resident.” Linh, originally an assistant to Sam Darrow, but more and more a friend and confidant to Helen, wisely shares his understanding of his place as a Vietnamese man:
One is like a brick in a wall, interdependent; one has no meaning outside one’s relation to family and others
As Helen’s short stint in Vietnam turns into years, and as she craves more and more the one great shot that will cement her name in the history of war photographers, she learns that she is, perhaps, not as independent and untethered as she imagined herself to be. Helen has developed ties to the people of Vietnam, the locals in Saigon that she interacts with on a daily basis, and the “boys” in the troops she is assigned to accompany in the field.
The most thoroughly developed relationships are those with men - Helen’s closest mentors and friends (Darrow and Linh), her competitors and detractors, and even reminiscences about her father and brother. A friendship between Helen and a transplanted Parisian woman was referred to, but not fully demonstrated. Soli wrote a touching scene about Helen and a local soup vendor, and did show some interaction between Helen and her mother. Although I wish the female relationships had been explored more deeply, perhaps Soli’s point is that Helen was living in “a man’s world.”
It’s always satifying to find that line or scene in a novel which points to the title. In this case, esteemed war photographer Sam Darrow is describing the beauty of Angkor to Helen; he refers to both Henri Mouhot, who “discovered” the area around 1860, and to Homer’s ”lotus eaters” who visited a foreign land and enjoyed the local form of sustenance – a lotus flower so narcotic and addictive that they lost any desire to return to their homes and families (p. 205):
[Darrow]: “Mouhot forgot his homeland, his family, blissful in his exploration. He couldn’t tear himself away.”
“What a selfish man,” [Helen] said.
“No, you’ve got it all wrong. He was like one of Homer’s lotus eaters. He simply forgot all thoughts of return.”
“But you don’t need to go to Angkor. You already have the war.”
That excerpt is a fine way to sum up The Lotus Eaters. Readers, peering into the lives of Americans caught up in the war and the quest for the proverbial brass ring, will be caught up in story told from this unusual perspective. Check out other reviews of this novel at Caribou’s Mom, My Friend Amy, and Word Lily. The War Through the Generations blog links to several other reviews of The Lotus Eaters (and other books, of all genres, that focus on the Vietnam War), as well as a guest post from Tatjana Soli.
The Lotus Eaters is Tatjana Soli’s debut novel; her short fiction has been published in many journals and literary reviews; I’ll look forward to reading other work by this talented author. The Author’s Notes indicate that Soli researched not only general information and memoirs about the conflict in Vietnam, but also that she was inspired by the stories of female journalists and photographers who were there.