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The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus Eaters (2010)

by Tatjana Soli

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Initially set against the fall of Saigon and then flashing back to the early 1960's, Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters evokes the hypnotic horrors of war set against a lush, culturally rich landscape that lured many photojournalists during the Vietnam War. Falling victim to the intoxicating mix of adrenaline, fear, curiosity, and self-righteousness, they--just as the lotus eaters of Homer's The Odyssey--forsake their homelands as war becomes their passion and their comfort.

The novel focuses on Helen Adams, a naive, uninitiated field photographer whose desire to connect with the military life of her father and her brother leads her to Saigon. A born tomboy, Helen has always resented being shut out of the masculine pursuits she longed to be a part of and quickly finds her experience in Vietnam is to be no exception. As a woman in war, she's viewed as a curiosity, a sexual object, a harbinger of bad luck, an inconvenience. However, her tenacity and her willingness to stoically endure the soldiers' hardships begins to earn her a grudging respect. It also helps that she's willing to understand and experience Vietnam in a way other Americans aren't--to look beyond the headlines and the government shading of events; to know its people and its culture: "That was the experience in Vietnam: things in plain view, their meaning visible only to the initiated" (7).

Soli's characterization of Helen is presented as a woman who is constantly evolving, growing as she tests herself in the ultimate masculine sphere and as she confronts her own hypocrisies in pursuing one iconic image that will capture all the horror, all the waste, and all the courage of war. Helen knows the power of photographs to change the hearts and minds that really matter, those of the Americans back home, and, as such, "Pictures could not be accessories to the story--evidence--they had to contain the story within the frame; the best picture contained a whole war within one frame" (118). At the same time, she knows her craving for such a photograph is that of an addict's and will never be sated; as soon as she has a photograph that seems to define everything she wants to communicate, she knows she'll take increasingly dangerous risks as she tries to top previous successes.

The novel also presents the stories of two men who will help define Helen's life in Vietnam: Sam Darrow, a veteran war photographer whose only home is in conflict, and his aide, Linh, a photographer and translator who has belonged to and been damaged by both Vietnamese armies. Through these two men, Helen learns the toll war takes on those tasked with documenting its reality. While not equal to the burden of the young men in battle, the weight of being the one behind the lens, bearing witness to atrocity after atrocity, comes with its own spiritual price.

As lovely as the cover is, it's also deceiving. It's clearly marketed to a female historical fiction audience, so I feared it would be a torrid love story set against a Vietnam that was as authentic as a 1940's sound stage, with maybe a water buffalo roaming through for a dash of "authenticity." While there is a realistic romantic element involved, the real love story is between the photographers and the war. Soli has done her research and the Vietnam in her novel is fully realized: its beauty, its filth, its people, its cities, and its jungles. Her war scenes are harrowing, brutal and realistic, and seeing them through the eyes of a female photojournalist is a uniquely satisfying point of view for a war novel.

Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder and at Shelf Inflicted ( )
1 vote snat | Jul 30, 2014 |
RMIT Swanston
  Egaro | Jun 1, 2014 |
The sappy cover and back blurb put my off this book club offering so badly that I didn't bother fetching it from the library until just 5 or so days before we were to meet. They do not do the text justice. Intense, gritty and beautiful/ugly, the story of a photo journalist in 60s-70s Vietnam convincingly takes the reader through her own confusion over what motivates her, the ambiguity of those motives, while also effectively telling the story of the country and the war which ravages it, providing a stunning and engrossing backdrop for the personal conflict motif.

The romance/s are almost secondary, thank heavens. I'm not one for 400+ page romance novels. Back when I was 12, yes, but thankfully my tastes have altered a tad since then!

I did find the ending rather anti-climactic, but for the most part this was very difficult to put down. ( )
  Vivl | Jun 1, 2014 |
In the year of 1975 North Vietnam is still pushing towards Saigon. It's the end of the Vietnam war (or American war, depending on who you ask). The Lotus Eaters opens with the city's demise being eminent and the panic to escape, mounting. Caught in this frenzy is Helen Adams, a seasoned American photojournalist, and her Vietnamese lover, Lihn. Stepping back in time, we learn that Helen is following in the footsteps of her soldier brother, killed in action earlier in the war. She has come to Vietnam to research his death and ultimately falls in love with the war. As we follow Helen from her first arriving in Saigon, we witness her naivete and her desperate need to belong. Quickly, she attaches herself to Sam Darrow, a fellow photojournalist who has been around the block a few times. He is supposed to be a hard-nosed, loner of a photographer, but he and Helen soon develop a romantic relationship that defies logic and marriage vows. Sam's assistant, Lihn complicates things when he too falls in love with Helen. In the midst of well-worn war, emerges a not-so obvious love triangle.
In other reviews I have read the complaint is Soli takes the story too far, drags it out too long. I disagree. Each phase of Helen's time in Vietnam, as well as her time away, builds a layer of her personality and adds to the complexity of her emotions. I am of two minds about the beginning, though. Soli reveals upfront that Lihn is Helen's lover and they are desperate to get out of Saigon. That information nagged at me throughout the rest of the telling because I knew it was coming. For example, I expected something to happen to Darrow because the shift in Helen's relationship with Lihn. It was a matter of when this something would happen that kept me guessing. ( )
  SeriousGrace | May 5, 2014 |
My goodness I love this book so much. It’s a historical fiction novel about a female photographer in Vietnam during the war. As much as I’ve read about World War I and II I know very little about that war. Soli paints an intense picture of the horror of battle and the beauty of the country. The novel is full of beautifully drawn characters trying to come to terms with the contradiction of reporting what’s happening and the inevitability of becoming part of the story of the war.

At first you think the book is a love story, but the story that unfolds is not the one you’re expecting. We begin at the end and then trace our way back to the beginning to better understand the characters of Helen and Linh. Structuring the novel in this way makes the whole thing more powerful. Seeing the long journey that our main characters take to get to each other is just enthralling.

Yes it's a love story, but it's also story of loss and grief and coping with the trauma of war and the return to the banality of civilian life. It’s about the complicated nature of war and the adrenalin rush that comes from being in danger. It’s about the inevitable impact an invading nation has on the society it’s attempting to “save” Helen’s conflicting feelings about getting the perfect shot and exploiting the people felt so real and relatable. It’s something that all journalists in extreme situations must come to tussle with. She struggles with the potent mix of fear and excitement as she becomes entrenched in the world of Vietnam.

The book has two very complex love stories. Usually when that happens it’s difficult to make the reader connect with both without making one feel unimportant. I felt like the author did a wonderful job with that. She included a crucial time period when Helen is back in the states with neither man. When she returns to Vietnam and reconnects with Lihn while he is helping her recover from her wounds their relationship feels very natural.
There is also a stark difference between her relationship with Darrow and the relationship with Linh. Darrow doesn’t coddle her, he challenges her. Linh tries to protect her, not because he sees her as incapable or weak, but because he’s already lost the woman he loved and he doesn’t want it to happen again.

BOTTOM LINE: This novel, the writing, the characters, the story, was all just gorgeous. I was completely enraptured by the way it evoked the scenes of a foreign war zone and the people affected by it so vividly. The end did feel a bit rushed, like it deviated from the feel of the rest of the book, but it didn’t bother me too much and it certainly didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book overall.

“The possibility of time going on, her memories growing dim, the photographs of the battles turning from life into history, terrified her.”

“She thought of the rolls of film in the car, the images cradled in emulsion, areas of darkness and light like the beginnings of the universe.” ( )
  bookworm12 | May 2, 2014 |
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Tatjana Soli’s haunting debut novel begins where it ought to end. In this quietly mesmerizing book about journalists covering the war in Vietnam, the first glimpses of the place are the most familiar. The year is 1975. Americans are in a state of panic as North Vietnamese forces prepare to occupy Saigon. The looters, the desperate efforts to escape this war zone, the mobs surrounding the United States Embassy, the overcrowded helicopters struggling to rise above the chaos: these images seem to introduce Ms. Soli’s readers to a story they already know.
"An impressive debut novel about a female photographer covering the Vietnam War...A visceral story about the powerful and complex bonds that war creates. It raises profound questions about professional and personal lives that are based on, and often dependent on, a nation’s horrific strife. Graphic but never gratuitous, the gripping, haunting narrative explores the complexity of violence, foreignness, even betrayal. Moving and memorable." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
added by TatjanaSoli | editKirkus (Feb 1, 2010)
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For my mom,

who taught me about

brave girls crossing oceans
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The city teetered in a dream state.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312611579, Hardcover)

A unique and sweeping debut novel of an American female combat photographer in the Vietnam War, as she captures the wrenching chaos and finds herself torn between the love of two men. 

On a stifling day in 1975, the North Vietnamese army is poised to roll into Saigon. As the fall of the city begins, two lovers 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 who loves 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.

Tatjana Soli paints a searing portrait of an American woman’s struggle and triumph in Vietnam, a stirring canvas contrasting the wrenching horror of war and the treacherous narcotic of obsession with the redemptive power of love. Readers will be transfixed by this stunning novel of passion, duty and ambition among the ruins of war.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:31:34 -0400)

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A novel that follows an American female combat photographer in the Vietnam War as she captures the wrenching chaos and finds herself torn between the love of two men.

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