Regular Contributor Shannon Ross is back with today’s book review. I always love when a novel takes me deeper into a place or time that I only know a little bit about and it sounds like THE LOTUS EATERS does just that with a fast paced story that keep the pages turning.
Tatjana Soli’s THE LOTUS EATERS jumps into action from chapter one, introducing us to Helen Adams as she witnesses the fall of Saigon and the evacuation of all Americans from the city. Helen is a headstrong photographer equally renowned for her extensive coverage of the Vietnam War and her reputation as a daring female among the boys’ club of American photographers. Helen chooses to remain in Vietnam to witness the end, sending on her wounded lover Linh against his wishes.
We are then transported to a decade earlier, as Helen first arrives in Saigon, after dropping out of college to photograph a war she barely understands but is drawn to after her brother’s death in combat. She meets Sam Darrow, a dashing and adventurous photographer who stands out among the sea of Americans, most of whom have traveled to Vietnam in search of a Pulitzer but are too frightened to go outside the staged and routine shots, and who are also wholly disinterested in learning about the country.
Helen is enticed by Darrow’s dedication to finding the best shot through any means necessary; and Sam takes an interest in Helen as he sees some of the same spirit in her, as well as a great deal of naiveté. As Helen works alongside Darrow and his assistant Linh, she navigates the emotions of living amongst a war in a foreign world, as well as her feelings for both Darrow and Linh in this charged environment.
I was impressed to read that THE LOTUS EATERS is Tatjana Soli’s debut novel, as the story flows masterfully and kept me turning the pages throughout. Far from a historical novel, THE LOTUS EATERS nevertheless interjects historical elements, and illustrates with complexity a country gripped by war. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of Helen photographing American draftees, most of whom are young men who long to leave Vietnam as much as Helen fights to remain. I was also interested to read that Soli based the novel on a small number of real female photographers in Vietnam, who undoubtedly faced incredible obstacles of sexism in addition to the daily trauma of living amidst an ongoing war.
As someone who likely wouldn’t select a book on the Vietnam War, I was glad to have the opportunity to read and review it. I do have to (shamefully) admit that I was initially unaware of the title’s reference. The title refers to a passage in The Odyssey, in which travelers arrive in a new land and, after sampling the lotus flower, never want to leave. Although it may seem unusual to choose to spend a decade in a war-torn country, as the story progresses Helen becomes addicted to Vietnam. Not only is she enticed by the rush of danger all around her, but also more importantly to the country itself. Helen is enamored by Vietnam and its people, and I enjoyed following her journey and discovering some piece of this for myself.
— Shannon Ross, Regular Contributor