Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Book Review - The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli’s debut novel, is quite impressive, but not without its faults. It revolves around neophyte photojournalist, Helen Adams, who we first meet in 1975 in Saigon as the North Vietnamese begin to roll through the city, and the city falls. I guess I shouldn’t call Adams a neophyte photojournalist because she arrived in Vietnam in 1965, an idealistic California girl, fresh out of college, her only previous encounter with war being her father’s tales of fighting in the Korean War and her brother’s letters home. However, rather shockingly, her only experience with photography has been a high school class. When Helen arrives in Vietnam, she’s so naïve she doesn’t even know how to load her camera and has to ask one of her male counterparts to do it for her.
One the whole, The Lotus Eaters was nicely written, though Soli does seem to be asking her readers to “suspend their disbelief” a tad too much, as when Sam Darrow – a renowned and critically acclaimed photojournalist – takes Helen under his wing to “teach her the ropes.” Helen, while not achieving Darrow’s critical acclaim – he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner – does begin to make a name for herself, if only because she’s the Vietnam War’s first female photojournalist.
Predictably, Helen and the unhappily married Darrow not only work together, they begin a passionate love affair as well. Helen wants the couple to leave Vietnam; she wants Darrow to begin a new life with her, back in the relative safety of the US. Darrow, however, is consumed by his work, and he’s passionate about recording the events that are taking place in Vietnam. Eventually, Helen begins to be consumed as well:
Before, there had been this small, shiny thing inside her that had kept her immune from what was happening, and now she knew it had only been her ignorance, and she felt herself falling into a deep, dark place.
I suppose we could have predicted that The Lotus Eaters would revolve around those who were consumed with recording the happenings in Vietnam. In Greek mythology, the “lotus eaters” taste, and then become possessed by, a narcotic plant. In Homer’s Odyssey, a portion of which Soli uses as her novel’s epigraph, the lotus eaters are robbed of any desire to return to their own homeland.
When Linh, Darrow’s soldier-turned-photography assistant falls in love with Helen, the book takes another turn. Linh is a self-contained man, a mysterious figure, who has lost everything he ever loved to the war. As such, he’s able to see the war with a clarity that neither Helen nor Darrow can possess. Linh is not a person who romanticizes the cruelty of war, and though the war has taken from him everything he loves, he still feels deeply connected to his native country.
I found Linh to be the most complex and intriguing character in The Lotus Eaters. Soli expertly reveals his story by peeling back layer after layer, as though peeling an onion. Just when we think we really know Linh, we find he has yet another secret to share. He is thoroughly believable; his dilemmas feel real and authentic.
Linh is, of course, symbolic of all the Vietnamese people, people who suddenly found themselves strangers in their own homeland. In his role as a photographer’s assistant, Linh is an outsider in the war; he takes as little part in the Vietnamese side of the conflict as he does in the American side. He does, after all, have mixed allegiances to both the SVA and the NVA and to Darrow and to Helen. He embodies the conflict raging on around them. I thought Linh was a wonderful creation and I greatly admire Soli for the work she put into this character.
At times, Soli’s prose is spare and pared down. At other times, it’s almost poetic. Her description of Linh’s physical and emotional loneliness is especially poignant:
One came to love another through repeated touch, he believed, the way a mother bonded with her newborn, the way his family had slept in the communal room, brushing against one another, the patterning through nerve endings, a laying of pulse against pulse, creating a rhythm of blood, and so now he touched others, strangers, only fleetingly, without hope.
However, throughout the book, Soli is at her best when describing scenes of war:
The air boiled hot and opaque, the sky a hard, saline blue. For miles the black mangrove swamp spread like a stagnant ocean, clotted, arthritic. Farther on they passed the swollen tributaries of the Mekong. Papaya, grapefruit, water palm, mangosteen, orange—fruit of every variety grew in abundance, dropping with heavy thuds on the ground to burst in hot flower in the sun.
Helen was fairly well drawn as the main character, however I have some problems with inconsistencies in the book. Christine Wicker, in the “Dallas Morning News” put it best, and I’m paraphrasing her words. At one point, Helen is so terrified of the war she finds herself involved in that she wets her pants while on patrol; in the next paragraph, she’s totally bored, and death, for her, seems to be some intellectual concept rather than something immediate and visceral. In another section, she describes a French woman with crimson lips, powdered skin, and penciled brows. On the very next page, this same French woman is described as very sparing with make up and taking painstaking work to look so natural. What?
Helen is presented to the reader as an intelligent and savvy woman, but even after months in Vietnam taking photos, she appears for her first battle assignment and has to ask another photographer to load her camera, as she doesn’t know how.
As Wicker concludes, Soli was probably just trying to show us Helen’s innocence and naiveté, however, if she was, the whole technique backfired on her. Helen, in these scenes, just comes across as an idiot.
Like Wicker, at that point, I found myself focusing more on Soli’s clumsiness than on the story or the characters. Miss Wicker went on to love the book; I went on to find it “just so-so.”
There’s no denying that Soli can write when she puts her mind to it. Helen begins to deal with grief and loss in the way many war victims deal with it – by pushing deeper and deeper into the war itself. Linh arranges for Helen to photograph the Ho Chi Minh trail, and Soli’s writing in these passages, regarding Helen’s grief, is exquisite:
After three days, Helen no longer thought of the crooked apartment or Saigon. Even Darrow changed from a pain outside, inflicted, to something inside, a tumor, with only its promise of future suffering. The vastness of the jungle struck her again in all its extraordinary voluptuousness, its wanton excess. It enchanted. Time rolled in long green distances, and she took comfort in the fact that the land would outlast them, would outlast the war—would outlast time itself.
All in all, I felt The Lotus Eaters could have been a very deep and wonderful book, one that embraced universal themes, but its deficiencies in craft caused it to miss the mark. It’s an uneven book, with prose that is spare and jarring at times and lofty and poetic at others. It asks much of the reader regarding the suspension of disbelief, and the ending feels rushed and is far too neat and tidy and too designed to please rather than being true to the vision set forth in the book’s first chapter.
I think Soli can become a major talent, but I don’t think this book quite lives up to the promises it makes in its very wonderful, and wonderfully written, first chapter.
Recommended: If you’re interested in the Vietnam War or the effects of war in general. While most books have concentrated on war from the perspective of those who are fighting, this book concentrates on the perspective of the photojournalist, a unique point of view. If you’re a picky reader like I am, however, the book’s deficiencies in craft might bother you as they did me.