The basics: Helen Adams is a photographer covering the Vietnam War. The novel opens in 1975, as Saigon is falling. Then the action returns to Helen's first days in Vietnam.
My thoughts: The reader is instantly immersed in the chaos of the war's last days in Saigon, and it was initially a (and intentionally, I presume) jarring experience. I was intrigued and relieved when the action shifted back to the story's beginning shortly thereafter. Glimpsing the after provided a richness to the earlier events and instantly allowed the reader to see how much the characters and their relationships with one another changed during the war. Seeing the end at the beginning enriched the story immensely (it's a technique I appreciated in White Woman on the Green Bicycle--one of my favorite reads of 2010--too) and the novel still maintained suspense and intrigue.
For me, there were three equally compelling components to this story: Helen, a dynamic character; Vietnam, the country, its identity, and the war; and photography, and how it supports and shapes perceptions of reality.
In the beginning of the novel, I didn't quite know what to make of Helen. I wanted to like her, but I didn't yet understand how she got to that place in her life. Immediately after the story shifted to her arrival in Vietnam, however, I connected with her and was incredibly fascinated by her. Like me, Helen is an independent woman who is fiercely loyal to those most important to her and somewhat of a drifter too. I'm continuously drawn to passages about the relativity of home, and this one is lovely:
"This is what happened when one left one's home--pieces of oneself scattered all over the world, no one place ever completely satisfied, always a nostalgia for the place left behind." (p. 277)Although I have studied the Vietnam War, I did not realize how little I knew of Vietnam the country. Soli did a fantastic job educating the reader about what came before and the evolving cultural identity of the Vietnamese:
"The Americans called it "the Vietnam war," and the Vietnamese called it "the American war" to differentiate it from "the French war" that had come before it, although they referred to both wars as "the Wars of Independence." Most Americans found it highly insulting to be mentioned in the same breath with the Colonial French." (p. 132)I majored in journalism in college (as well as women's studies and art history), and I'm drawn to novels about journalists. I never felt the call to be a war correspondent, but I'm fascinated by those who are (The Last War and Making It Up As I Go Along, read before I started blogging, are two other favorite novels about war correspondents.) Soli's descriptions of both the war and the way Helen photographed it was remarkably visual. Perhaps my mind was recalling pictures from the Vietnam War lodged in my memory, but the novel was so incredibly visual. I was mesmerized by both the way Helen (and her peers) photographed the war and the visual descriptions of the photographs themselves.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Lotus Eaters and read it in two sittings. I'm already looking forward to Tatjana Soli's next novel, which is set on a citrus farm in Southern California and will be published in early 2012. You can find out more on her website.
Favorite passage: "This is how history unfolds: a doubt here mixed with certainty there. One never knew which choice was the right one..." (p. 46)
The verdict: I completely immersed myself in The Lotus Eaters and Vietnam itself. It's harrowing, haunting, incredibly intense and utterly lovely. Highly recommended to just about everyone, but particularly those who enjoy historical fiction, war fiction, and international stories.
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 383 pages
Publication date: March 30, 2010 (it's in paperback now)
As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!