Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli (2010)

When my excellent friend Corie loaned me Tatjana Soli's debut novel, The Lotus Eaters (2010), I wasn't entirely sure I'd get into this story of a female American photojournalist in Vietnam. Of course, I should have remembered Corie's track record of book recommendations -- I was quickly engrossed in this one and was carried away by it until the end.

In 1965, after Helen Adams' brother is killed in Vietnam, she drops out of college and with a high school photography class under her belt, decides to travel to Vietnam and cover the war as a freelance photojournalist. A tall blond woman is a unique sight in Saigon, and particularly unusual in the boys club of foreign journalism. Helen makes her share of newbie mistakes, one of which initially appears to be falling into bed with the handsome Pulitzer prize winning bad boy of the bunch, Sam Darrow. After getting brushed off by Darrow, Helen regroups and quickly (honestly maybe a little too quickly) makes a name for herself as a natural photographer who is willing to take risks to bring in the shot. She gets a job as a Life staff photographer and is once again in the orbit of Darrow and his Vietnamese assistant, Linh.

Linh, like many of the Vietnamese assisting the Americans, has had a complicated and tragic life because of the complicated and tragic series of wars in his country. He keeps his feelings and history to himself, for the most part, but his story is slowly revealed over the course of the book, as is his hidden love for Helen that grows even as she and Darrow become inseparable.

Soli starts the book with the American evacuation of Saigon in 1975 as Helen and Linh struggle to escape with their lives and Helen's film, and then drops us back a decade. This structure gives us a unique perspective as we watch the characters move forward to the action at the beginning of the book, and deepens our understanding of their actions. In fact, throughout the book, Soli's biggest strength is her structuring of the plot and her hints and revelations of the past.

Helen Adams, Sam Darrow, and Linh are no cynical Thomas Fowlers, but there is a lot from this expatriate community of journalists that hearkens back to Graham Greene's The Quiet American (in fact, in an early scene, Helen throws her copy of Greene's book in the trash and then decides to read it one more time after it is rescued by her room boy). While Helen and the other characters do lose their idealism and optimism, they also become more a part of the Vietnamese culture than Fowler ever did and never entirely distance themselves from the events surrounding them -- to the extent that they are ultimately nearly destroyed by their inability to isolate themselves.

Soli is a beautiful writer, and this is a well researched and accurate-feeling novel about a country and a war that have been written about many times before. The characters, the romance, and the action are all believable and moving, but her descriptions of the environment and her compassion for all the components of her novel, even the smallest characters or briefest scenes, are part of what really make The Lotus Eaters stand out. Definitely worth reading.

No comments: