TLC Book Tour Review of “The Lotus Eaters” by Tatjana Soli

Note: This book is reviewed as part of TLC Tours.

There are so many good things about this historical novel that takes place during the Vietnam War, and yet it was very difficult for me to read. Vietnam was a terrible war on many levels. But reading about in a non-fiction setting (as I usually do) neutralizes the emotional impact. Once you transform the nature of the omnipresent fear and death by describing it clinically and analyzing it, by applying to it formulated phrases and academic cadences, you establish distance by largely emptying it of emotional content. But to couch the images of horror into the narrative framework of fiction, you yourself enter that hell as you increasingly get lost in the story. And it is then that passivity escapes you, and what has been bearable becomes so painful to contemplate.

The story takes place from 1963 to 1975. Sam Darrow is a prize-winning photojournalist who is one of the raucous group Helen Adams meets when she comes in Saigon in 1965. Helen, a pioneering (and at first amateur) female photojournalist, wants to contribute to the war that has already claimed her brother’s life.

Shortly after Helen’s arrival, she begins an affair with Sam, but he dies on a photography mission right before they were finally scheduled to leave the country. After she recovers, she marries a South Vietnamese man, Nguyen Pran Linh, who had served as assistant to both her and Sam, and who had always loved her.

As background to these affairs, passage after passage conveys the constant tension and fear among both the troops and the embedded photojournalists:

“Helen saw spooked faces; the eyes of the soldiers hard and distrustful. Jumpy. Hot and without sleep, walking around with fingers tight on the triggers of their weapons.”

Sometimes the fear overcame the soldiers, and they took it out on South Vietnamese civilians. Helen became afraid of her own country’s soldiers.

When Saigon falls, and the lives of both Helen and Linh are in danger because of the invasion of the North Vietnamese Army, they head for the sanctuary of the American Embassy. But Helen finds it difficult to leave: she has become addicted to the intensity of war:

“Outside, they plunged into a stream of people and were carried along. The ruttish noise deafening. Families argued over which direction to go, children cried, dogs barked, and on top of it all was the impatient blaring of horns as vehicles tried to force their way through. Far in the background, like the steady thrum of a heart, the sound of bombs exploding. The image of a bloodthirsty army approaching closer and closer made each person jog instead of walk, push instead of wait. Like a fix, Helen ached to pick up her camera and start shooting. What was the point of living through history if you didn’t record it?”

But by staying, she risks dangers even she had not contemplated.

Americans escaping Saigon from the Embassy rooftop, 1975

Discussion: Although this book contains a love story, it isn’t the only focus of the book. Rather, there are several themes that take center stage.

One of the issues with which the characters – all photojournalists – grapple, is the perception of war they are providing by their pictures. What effect are they having on others experiencing and responding to to reality of the war: are their images exploitative? Are they unconsciously skewed to create support or opposition to the war? Certainly their own biases about what is worthy of photographing affects widespread perception of what is happening, and they become “interpreters of violence” (as the famous female photographer Dickey Chapelle confessed in her memoirs). Or worse, by publishing these moments of hell out of context, are they, as Susan Sontag suggested, in essence equating them with products in ads or celebrity shots? Are the sheer volume and repetition of the pictures, as Sam feared, making the horror “palatable”?

Sam was keenly aware of the lessening of meaning over time and was afraid it was reflected in his pictures:

“Was his own work perpetrating the same on those it came into contact with? A steady loss of impact until violence became meaningless?”

Furthermore, is there something pornographic about the voyeurism of those who create, and those who observe, the pictures? As Helen muses:

“No getting around the ghoulishness of pouncing on tragedy with hungry eyes, snatching it away, glorying in its taking even among the most sympathetic: ‘I got an incredible shot of a dead soldier/woman/child. A real tearjerker.’ Afterward, film shot, they sat on the returning plane with a kind of postcoital shame, turning away from each other.”

A second issue plays a large role in this book: the addictive adrenaline rush that kept so many photojournalists plunging back into danger, long after the need for more pictures had disappeared. Sam explained to Helen the addictive attraction to war when she first arrived:

“That’s one of the keys to life here. Sudden and sublime. Sudden and awful. Everything distilled to its most intense. That’s why we’re all hooked.”

Adrenalin feeds the intensity, and the intensity in turn feeds the feeling of self-actualization, if only for the moment. As Sam told Helen:

“Being there I felt my life was bigger than it had been before.”

Helen, too, came to feel the same way,

” . . . how despite the fear and the anger, she had been awake in the deepest way, in a way that ordinary life could not compete with.”

Third, there is a brief exploration of the way in which living through a war increases passion generally, and heightens it in the particular, as all the characters look for love, or sex, or any form of human closeness. Their desperation illustrates the need in war (and its concomitant awareness of the closeness of death) to feel something maximally, even as one must develop emotional anesthesia to the savagery all around them.

Perhaps the issue having the most impact on me as an American is the one that looks at how the South Vietnamese felt about the devastation of their country. At one point Linh, filled with despair and just wanting the destruction to stop, reflects:

“What [Helen] didn’t understand was that both sides were willing to destroy the country to gain their own ends. Whose side was he on? Whoever’s side saved men, women, animals, trees, grass, hillsides, and rice paddies. The side that saved villages and children. That got rid of the poisons that lay in the earth. But he did not know whose side that was.”

Evaluation: This is an intense book that uses meticulous research to form a story exploring the addictive nature of war. The movie “The Hurt Locker” is an obvious comparison, but the book also made me think of the movie “Coming Home,” which so brilliantly exposes the deleterious effects of the Vietnam War on the soldiers who had to go fight in this hellish quagmire. If you are unfamiliar with the pain and chaos and fear that made Vietnam so awful for both civilians and military, this book will take you on an un-sugar-coated odyssey through Hell. Especially for Americans, I believe it’s a trip that should be taken.

Rating: 4/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2010

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25 Responses to TLC Book Tour Review of “The Lotus Eaters” by Tatjana Soli

  1. nfmgirl says:

    Great review! I have this book on my Wish List. I know what you mean about the clinical analysis and impartiality of a non-fictional account adding a certain distance that makes a story about something like Vietnam more tolerable. Strip that out and put yourself right into a fictional account, and suddenly it can become almost unbearable at times.

  2. kaye says:

    That last quote is so powerful. Glad to see you enjoyed the book and gave it a high rating.

  3. Kristi says:

    My grandfather served in Vietnam so it has always been one of my interests. This book sounds like a great way to feel some of the emotion of it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ll be on the lookout for this.

  4. Julie P. says:

    Why haven’t I read this????

  5. Great, great review! This is a beautiful book 🙂

  6. sagustocox says:

    Fantastic review. I really loved this book last year and wish more people had read it for the challenge. I did add your review link to the War Through the Generations Book reviews page. I hope you don’t mind.

    This is a complex book without feeling like one.

  7. zibilee says:

    What a brilliant review! I also felt much the same way as you did about this book, and was constantly amazed at the exploits and dangerous behavior of the photographers both during and after the war. The last bit of it when Helen went on that awful road trip was just a huge amalgamation of stress for me. I felt that something very bad was going to happen, and when it did, I almost got sick with fear. It was such a great book, and I felt such a deep connection to it.

  8. Frances says:

    Finished this yesterday and cannot escape the feeling of emptiness, of people so numbed by horror that they seem to be outside themselves looking in. Great post.

  9. Ti says:

    I’ve not read this one yet. As much as I like darkness, I shy away from war books. it’s just not my thing I guess, but you’ve made this one sound pretty good.

  10. marthalama says:

    Great review, I’m not a real fan of war novels or this time period but something about this book keeps drawing me back. I think I’m going to end up having to read this.

  11. Sandy says:

    Wow, you rocked on this review. As you know, this book was on my Best Of list for 2010, and it will be a long time before it fades from memory. Heather and I will actually be talking to her tomorrow night with my book club, so if you have any questions you want asked, let me know!

  12. Florinda says:

    Terrific review! I think that this one worked for me largely because it was fiction – well-researched, but fiction – and that framework made its emotional impact stronger and more immediate.

  13. Rural View says:

    I’ve long been fascinated by how people become addicted to war, and their difficulty adjusting to civilian life afterward. I’m putting this one on my list right now.

  14. bermudaonion says:

    Wow, your review of this is fantastic! I’ve been meaning to read this for a while and hope to get to it soon.

  15. Margot says:

    Wow! Your review was such a thoughtful analysis of this book. Excellent review of what I’ve always considered a difficult subject to talk about, In fact, of all the events I’ve lived through, the Vietnam War is one I don’t even like to think about.

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    I know I need to read this, but do not have the time or mindset to appreciate it right now. Maybe when I start getting a full night sleep 😉

  17. Jenners says:

    The more I read about this, the more it seems like a “must read.”

  18. nymeth says:

    I love your thoughts on non-fiction versus historical fiction. I l agree completely. I love both, but the impossibility of remaining emotionally distant is a huge part of why I appreciate HF so much. I need to read a narrative to be able to truly FEEL what a period in history was like. No amount of bare facts can give me that glimpse.

  19. Staci says:

    What an excellent review of this book. I love how eloquent you are!! Of course you know I loved loved this one too!!

  20. Lisa says:

    As usual, you have said it so much better than I could have!

  21. yes, and excellent review – “the addictive nature of war” was captured quite well.

    Your intro paragraph, with the discussion of distance we can feel with non-fiction is very insightful (and perhaps the opposite of what most would assume, that fiction provides a shield).

  22. Lisa Munley says:

    Fantastic, insightful review!! I’m thrilled you enjoyed The Lotus Eaters.. thanks so much for being on the tour!

  23. JoV says:

    I like to read about Vietnam war and I’ll keep a lookout for this book. Nice review.

  24. Great review! This book was a very intense and emotional journey, and until reading it, I never really thought about all the aspects of war photography, the biases, etc. Not only was Helen addicted to the war, but she also grew close to the land and the people of Vietnam.

  25. Chris says:

    I found the book to be slow, tedious, and repetitive and the story could have been told in half the words. I lead a discussion book club of about 25 people and over half either didn’t finish the book or were resentful that they did finish it. What I find interesting is the broad swing in opinions on the book. It really does seem to either really rock your world or it is boring and difficult to get into. As I read other blog pages of “regular readers” it’s about 10 to 1….10 feeling it was boring (IE: Weight Watchers book club blog). I am among the people who really struggled to even finish the book.

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