The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli


All they now wanted was to stay where they were with the Lotus-eaters, to browse on the lotus, and to forget all thoughts of return.
Homer, The Odyssey as quoted in The Lotus Eaters.

The Lotus Eaters is an extraordinary debut novel by Tatjana Soli.  Helen Adams, the main character, is a young amateur photographer who leaves college early to go to Vietnam to cover the war.  She is met by a male dominated press core, who seem to find her both equally annoying and fascinating.  She quickly befriends Sam Darrow, a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist who is known as the best in Vietnam.  He is reluctant to take her under his wing, but finds her persistence and innocence alluring and soon they are traveling through Nam together following soldiers in combat missions along with Darrow’s Vietnamese helper Linh.  Linh, having fought for both sides in the Vietnamese army before he defected provides a Vietnamese perspective, and contributes to an already beautifully layered story,”We are a people used to grief. Expecting it even.”

Soon, Helen’s tenacity and courage pays off and she soon becomes a noted photographer for Life magazine while covering the war in Vietnam.  Eventually with war as the back drop, Helen and Sam fall in love and try to coax each other into leaving Vietnam and going home, but as more and more time goes by it becomes harder and harder to leave the country they have come to despise and love at the same time.  If war is what you do well, then how do you stop doing it?  After one horrible scene in battle, Helen decides to leave and go back home to San Francisco to live with her mother.  She is there only a few weeks when she realizes that she cannot cope with being home and doing trivial things like going shopping for new clothes when so much of who she is, was still in Vietnam.  Vietnam was at the center of the world, and in her eyes everything worth doing in life was there.

“This is what happened when one left one’s home – pieces of oneself scattered all over the world, no one place ever completely satisfied, always a nostalgia for the place left behind. Pieces of her in Vietnam, some in this place of bone. She brought the letter to her nose. The smell of Vietnam: a mix of jungle and wetness and spices and rot. A smell she hadn’t realized she missed.”
As the war slowly ends , and the fall of Saigon is near, Helen struggles with knowing she will now have to either leave Vietnam voluntarily or risk  being killed in the communist invasion and its aftermath.  Even with that knowledge she still can’t bear to leave the violence and monstrosities behind for a life that which without it, would seem inconsequential, “Clear now that she was as dependent as any addict on the drug of the war. He had underestimated the damage in her.”
In Homer’s Odyssey, the Lotus Eaters become addicted to the narcotic plants, and no longer desire to return home.  Soli uses a quote from the story at the beginning of her novel and it serves as a pretense for all the events forthcoming in the book.  A brilliant idea for a title to fit an equally brilliant book.
I really loved this book from cover to cover.  It is my favorite read so far of 2010.  The characters were authentic, the writing was sparse and beautiful, no wasted paragraphs or wordiness, everything about it was good in my opinion.  I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys literary fiction.

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