Day after day I go out with photographers who are tourists of the war. – Nguyen Pran Linh
One would be hard pressed to think of a war zone as a tourist destination. Yet, for the photojournalists in Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters that is exactly what, in a perverse way, war-torn Vietnam becomes for them.
Helen Adams, fresh from college and just cutting her teeth as a photographer, finds her way to Vietnam as part of her struggle to understand what her brother, a special forces solider who was killed in action, experienced before his death.
Once in country she meets veteran photojournalist Sam Darrow and his guide/assistant Nguyen Pran Linh. Together they take a journey deep into the horrors of war, finding that even amongst such darkness there still blooms dignity and hope.
The title of the book comes from Homer’s Odyssey, in which those who ate the lotus fruit became so intoxicated by it they lost all desire to return to their homeland. Just like the lotus-eaters, Helen and Sam become so intoxicated by the rush of combat photography that they actually resist the idea of leaving Vietnam.
In fact, except for a brief visit home early on, Helen spends nearly a decade in Vietnam chronicling the war, and over the course of the book we watch as Helen comes to fully understand the volatile mixture of courage and callousness required to be a successful combat photographer, and the price one pays for it:
In terms of the present moment, they were despicable to the soldiers, to the victims, to even themselves. In the face of real tragedy, they were unreal, vultures; they were all about getting product. In their worst moments, each of them feared being a kind of macabre Hollywood, and it was only in terms of the future that they regained their dignity, became dubious heroes. The moment ended, about to be lost, but the one who captured it on film gave both subject and photographer a kind of disposable immortality.
That is precisely what Helen and Sam are doing; chasing the moment, chasing immortality through the lenses of their cameras…and finding themselves in the precarious, and shameful, position of thriving as others suffer, feeling alive only when they are surrounded by death.
The Lotus Eaters is an extremely ambitious book and, for the most part, it lives up to its ambition. Soli’s prose is strong and self-assured, and her descriptions of the people and landscape of Vietnam are as vivid as a portrait, especially when juxtaposing their beauty with the ugliness of war. I did feel at times, however, that the characters got lost in the scenery and could have done with a bit more fleshing out. Linh in particular seemed like a potential gold mine that was never fully explored, which was somewhat disappointing as I found him to be the most interesting and sympathetic character in the book.
Nevertheless, Soli has undeniably created something special in The Lotus Eaters, and I will be very curious to see what she presents as the follow up to this impressively polished debut.
The Lotus Eaters is available from St. Martin’s Griffin (ISBN: 978-0312674441).
Be sure to check out all of Allison’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:
Monday, December 20th: You’ve GOTTA Read This!
Monday, January 3rd: Simply Stacie
Tuesday, January 4th: 1330V
Wednesday, January 5th: Rundpinne
Thursday, January 6th: The Bookworm
Friday, January 7th: Nomad Reader
Monday, January 10th: Life in the Thumb
Tuesday, January 11th: Man of La Book
Wednesday, January 12th: The 3 R’s Blog
Thursday, January 13th: The Well-Read Wife
Friday, January 14th: In The Next Room
Tuesday, January 18th: Chaotic Compendiums
Wednesday, January 19th: Melody & Words
Thursday, January 20th: Musings of an All Purpose Monkey
Friday, January 21st: Book Bird Dog
Monday, January 24th: Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, January 26th: Rhapsody in Books