I love a novel that can transport me into its world and force me to invest in it. Therefore the premise of Tatjana Soli’s debut novel The Lotus Eaters intrigued me immediately. Helen Adams is one of the pioneer female photographers of the Vietnam War, desperate to understand the conflict responsible for her younger brother’s death. However, Vietnam becomes not only a war zone for her to photograph, but the setting of a love affair between herself, her accomplished colleague Sam Darrow, and later his Vietnamese assistant Linh. Through both her occupation and her romantic entanglements Helen comes to love the desecrated country she initially feared.
The title of the novel, The Lotus Eaters, is a reference to an episode in Homer’s The Odyssey in which the travelers encounter a land bearing lotus plants so irresistible that its visitors never leave. This novel’s outsiders, Helen, Darrow and Linh (the Vietnamese Linh’s back story reveals a deep schism with his home country, rendering him an outsider as well), are imprisoned by the addiction of war, desperate to find meaning in the adrenaline-laced missions they capture on film. In fact, the novel’s best passages are those in which these characters are doing what they love: risking their lives to capture the truth of the Vietnam War. Soli describes these gruesome scenes expertly and in good taste, but she never lets the reader forget the appalling events that took place.
While the addiction to this adventurer’s lifestyle takes its toll on the journalists, regularly proving fatal, The Lotus Eaters is ultimately a story of redemption. After Darrow’s gut-wrenching death, Helen and Linh find themselves drawn to one another first through their grief and then through the connection earned from one another through their shared experiences. While I do not believe Linh to be Helen’s “great love”–I think that title belongs to Darrow–I do believe that the relationship that develops as a result of their shared passions and experiences is equally redemptive. Despite all of the horror that these characters have witnessed, it is rewarding to see that they are able to remain human enough to love.
While there are many elements to this book that I loved, there were a few nagging points that put me off. In my reading experience, a love story is one of the most difficult to tell convincingly. For me, the romance between Fred Henry and Catherine Barkley in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is the gold standard. With that said, the love triangle in this novel came off a bit forced at times. While I liked each character separately, Linh most of all, when forced into relationships with one another, they each lost some of their luster.
Overall, The Lotus Eaters is a very good book. It offers the reader a fresh perspective to a subject, the Vietnam War, that isn’t new to contemporary fiction. I will certainly keep an interested eye out for Soli’s next novel!