Tatjana Soli’s debut novel The Lotus Eaters (St. Martin’s Press, New York), set during the Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s, shows the deadly risks combat photographers took to bring headlines out of chaos. The story begins in the last days of the conflict, with panicked Saigonese crowding the gates of the American embassy, begging for helicopter rescues out of the enemy-occupied city. A desperate American combat photographer, Helen, and her wounded Vietnamese lover, Linh, navigate the streets and alleys amidst a fleeing population. Helen delivers Linh to the care of the Americans and chooses to return to the streets of Saigon for an opportunity to photograph the occupation.
Ten years earlier, Helen arrived in Vietnam as a novice photographer whose purpose it was to find evidence of her veteran brother’s death in a mismanaged battlefield in Vietnam. While in Saigon she falls in love with a veteran combat photographer, Darrow. Through his eyes she sees the raw ugliness of combat. She is a conflicted American woman striving for equality in a male-dominated field. Danger tests her courage and her ability to understand a confusing foreign war. Her admiration for the Vietnamese people is further questioned when confronted with opportunists and traitors.
The book is well researched. Immersed in noisy, smelly jungles, swamps, rivers and rice paddy battlefields, we sense the enemy hidden all around. We lament the senseless slaughter. There are no villains, only people trying to survive against hopeless odds.
For me, there are two minor flaws. I’m not convinced why she loved a married, bitter, battle-worn combat photographer who secretly respected her as an equal, but treated her shabbily. The story is about finding courage and overcoming fear for a greater cause. At times, Helen seemed too girlish. She often considers whether she should go back to America, and leave it all behind. Why does she stay? Is she a shock junkie?
The following review by The Washington Post may shed some light:
Lotus eaters, in Greek mythology, taste and then become possessed by the narcotic plant. Already an accomplished short story writer, Soli uses as her epigraph a passage from Homer’s “Odyssey” in which the lotus eaters are robbed of their will to return home. It is a clue, right from the start, that this novel will delve into the lives of those who become so fixated on recording savagery that life in a peaceful, functioning society begins to feel banal and inconsequential. —The Washington Post
It isn’t until the last few pages that we learn the fates of Linh and Helen after the collapse of Saigon.