Wednesday, November 30, 2011


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The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli, St Martin's Press, 2010, 386 pp

I have tirelessly suggested The Lotus Eaters for consideration to all of my reading groups. (Currently I am a member of four.) Finally it was chosen and read for the November meeting of the One Book at a Time group. We meet at a Mexican restaurant in Sunland, CA. We drink margaritas, iced tea and diet coke. We all talk at once. We are writers, lawyers and ex-school teachers. Not everyone finishes their books but the ones who did finish The Lotus Eaters were as enthralled as I was.

The novel opens as the city of Saigon falls in 1975. Americans are fleeing like rats on a sinking ship and Tatjana Soli deftly paints the picture of our country's utter abandonment of the Vietnamese people. Photojournalist Helen Adams is about to be airlifted from the roof of the American Embassy, along with her mortally wounded Vietnamese husband, when she suddenly bolts from the helicopter and heads back into Saigon. She is unable to leave before she has seen the final end of the war including the takeover by the Vietcong. It is one of the most powerful opening scenes I have ever read.

The remainder of the novel covers the twelve years this American young woman spent photographing the war. She arrived, a college drop out, looking for adventure and hoping to somehow process the loss of her brother, who died in Korea. A complete amateur, she can barely load her camera. Although she is a fictional character, loosely inspired by Dickey Chapelle who was one of only three female photojournalists in Vietnam, she is a complex mix of insecurities, losses, fears, determination, and a growing political awareness.

Her drive to succeed in a profession dominated by men leads her into extreme adventure, love, and fame. One of those men is a hardened, long time war journalist. He becomes her mentor, her lover and a source of endless frustration. The other main character is Lin, Vietnamese photographer's assistant as well as spy, who has lost his wife, family, village and profession because of the war. Eventually Helen marries him. But Helen's inability to walk away from the war is more than the addiction to violence as in The Hurt Locker. Her love affairs go far beyond romance becoming a way to find human connection in the face of the violence, devastation and daily threat of death that make up a photojournalist's life.

The Lotus Eaters is not like anything else you have ever read about Vietnam. It is without doubt the best book I have read this year. How Tatjana Soli was able to seamlessly combine the elements of possibly the stupidest war in which America has ever been involved, into such a deeply moving story is a testament to her abilities as a writer. It is her first novel, it took her ten years to write and get published, and she had never been to Vietnam until after it became a New York Times bestseller in April, 2010.

Her website is fascinating and includes an illuminating bio. This interview with Michael Silverblatt of BookWorm gave me more insight into why and how she accomplished the writing.

The best aspect of an amazing novel is a certain magic. The Lotus Eaters has that magic woven throughout and tells the Vietnam story in a way that heals as it relates the horrors. Perhaps mankind will always fight stupid wars. Perhaps if enough writers like this get read by enough readers, we can move on to something just as exciting but not so destructive.

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