The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
It's impossible to review Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters without remembering that the United States is still sticking its nose in places where it's not wanted. Granted, Vietnam looks a lot different than Afghanistan or Iraq -- it's a lot wetter, for one thing. But the cast of characters, from insurgents to innocent civilian casualties to battle-fatigued Americans, looks and acts the same from war to war. It's enough to make this particular reader wonder when we're ever going to learn.
As the novel opens, hardened photojournalist Helen Adams is fleeing the wreckage of Saigon at the end of the war with her wounded Vietnamese lover, Nguyen Pran Linh. As Helen shoves Linh into a helicopter for treatment back in the States, Soli cycles back twelve years earlier, when Helen first deplaned in Saigon as a beautiful, idealistic young would-be war correspondent.
Helen's ambition, damaged psyche -- her younger brother was killed earlier in the war -- and adrenaline addiction bring her to the attention of the legendary combat photographer Sam Darrow and his assistant, the silent, indispensable Linh. Their dedication to the cause brings them together, but will they survive the constant barrage of assaults on their hearts, bodies and minds? Who will Helen choose, the reckless, charismatic American? Or his unassuming Vietnamese assistant, who hides his own army of secrets? Stay tuned for next week's episode!
Initially, Soli's mess of melodrama is as dense and impenetrable as the jungle itself. Her characters are infuriating, one step away from complete cliché. Helen is one of those frustrating romance-novel heroines that is just begging to get shot in the first two chapters -- a tall, blonde Southern Californian (I mean, really?) who is constantly beating men off with a stick, and so ignorant that Darrow has to show her how to load film into her camera. Linh is haunted by memories of his beautiful dead wife. Darrow is your standard “war is a drug” testosterone-crazed loon, with a wife and kids that he never sees (see Hurt Locker, The).
There are a lot of cold weights in the pits of stomachs and hearts; a lot of clutching filthy lovers with gaunt faces and despairing eyes; and lots and lots of interior monologue, wherein our tortured protagonists ask themselves questions like, “She would kill for him, but would she also stay alive for him?” I don't know! At times, I also didn't know if I wasn't, perhaps, reading a Judith McNaught novel or other paperback in the “Beach Reads” section of my local Barnes & Noble.
And yet I was drawn into the story in spite of my skepticism. Being a combat photographer is an entirely different experience than being a soldier. Helen always has one eye on Darrow in the field, a lone, lanky figure without a helmet, gun or any way to defend himself. Helen's big break, where she documents a South Vietnamese captain -- an ally -- shooting an old man for his chickens, results in a hasty gun barrel to the face. On leave, they discover that the local USAID worker has appropriated a fifteen-year-old villager for his own personal use.
As photojournalists, it's their job to document stories wherever they happen, without prejudice or any particular loyalties. The only problem is that if you refuse to take sides, you'll find no one on yours. The three of them fear their allies just as much as the VC. Darrow rescues a starving girl who's had her legs blown off by a land mine; when Helen checks on her later, the girl has morphed into a repulsive, blistering brat who is too fat for her prosthesis. No wonder the three of them rely only on each other. War makes people despicable, and only a few can be trusted.
Soli has a knack for miraculous detail that enveloped me, whether its the stench of an American military squadron smearing itself with fermented fish sauce to disguise the smell of Western deodorant, or the vision of Helen crouching behind a berm and making herself the usual small bargains with fate to get herself out alive (“If I get out of here, I am going to buy myself a nice silk scarf”). She also has unsparing sympathy for her characters, a sympathy that made me care what happened to the three of them despite the occasional desire to smack one or more of them in the face.
She managed to humanize Helen's Daryl-Hannah idiot-robot. She also imbued the similarly machine-like Darrow with a similar poignancy and regret, although I found a scene where Darrow is lamenting that a brave young helicopter pilot could've been his son a little confusing and silly -- Darrow, have you forgotten? You already have a son! You just don't give a crap about him!
Linh is arguably the most interesting character, as he's undergone a variety of ordeals the likes of which Darrow and Helen can only imagine. Unfortunately, given Linh's close-mouthedness and his third-wheel status for the majority of the novel, we don't get to spend as much time with him as in the arms of Darrow and Helen.
It's disorienting to realize that, with the advance of other foreign conflicts, novels about the Vietnam War have stopped being contemporary accounts and moved into the realm of historical fiction. Like Gone with the Wind and other historical accounts of passion and war, The Lotus Eaters will alternate between swamping you with academic detail and turgid accounts of “lust, taken neat.” However, it is a far more elevated story of romance and intrigue than anything you could find in your supermarket aisle on your way to check out. And if you, like me, are particularly susceptible to tales of doomed love and wading knee-deep in rice paddies, than you may even find yourself helplessly glued to its pages.
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
St. Martin's Press