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 waInitially 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.