The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
St Martins Griffin, New York, 2010
In the fall of 1965 Helen Adams arrived in Vietnam trying to find out about the death of her brother Michael and a desire to break out of her normal life.
" My brother wrote me a letter before he was killed. He said no matter what happened he couldn't regret coming. I needed to see for myself. And the only way to become famous is to cover combat, right? I dropped out because I was worried it would be over by the time I graduated." From pages 86/87.
Drawn into the excitement and chaos of war and attracted to combat photographer Sam Darrow, Helen stays, learns to take photographs and discovers an obsession she had no idea she was carrying.
This book surprised me. I find it is hard to believe it is Tatjana Soli's first novel.
When I first started reading it I wasn't sure what to expect. Would this be a story that revolved around the covert and overt attractions between three photographers? Would it be a blood and guts war story? What I found was a tightly woven novel that brought the "American war" to me in a way that connects it to the land and its people. It is beautiful and appalling and after reading a few pages I found it hard to put down.
All I can do now is include a few passages and hope they seduce you, cause you to pick up and read this book.
She rode out with the helicopter pilots high over the land of the delta south of Saigon, trailing over the endless paddy fields that reflected up at them like broken pieces of a mirror. The dull green of choking jungle and sinewy-limbed mangrove swamp contrasting with the light green of new rice; the land only rarely broken signs of human habitation - small clusters of thatched roofs or an occasional one of red tile. From above, the land appeared empty and peaceful, only farmers bent in the paddies or orchards She sat like a tourist, enthralled by the dirty green and reddish brown rivers, slow and thick-moving like veins pumping life into the lands. From page 116.
After the calm of the village, the sheer numbers of people overwhelmed; the scale of the disaster made her feel useless. Dry-mouthed, she licked her lips, tasting salt, growing more thirsty. When an old man collapsed on the side of the road, she stooped down, shielding him from view, and gave him precious mouthfuls of water, but in seconds a crowd formed, and she had to move on. From page 203.
The Vietnamese called the the Tay Nguyen, the Western Highlands, because in their minds they saw the country as a whole, not accepting the artificial divisions of north and south.
Names were important.
Names, finally, were the only things the Vietnamese had left. For a whole period of history, Vietnam existed only on the tip of someone's tongue, forbidden to be said out loud.
Geography became power. From page 317.