Merrimon Book Reviews

South Vietnamese refugees walk across a U.S. Navy vessel. Operation Frequent Wind, the final operation in Saigon, began April 29, 1975. During a nearly constant barrage of explosions, the Marines loaded American and Vietnamese civilians, who feared for their lives, onto helicopters that brought them to waiting aircraft carriers. The Navy vessels brought them to the Philippines and eventually to Camp Pendleton, Calif.

From Merrimon Book Reviews
The Lotus Eaters
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
by Tatjana Soli

Provokes several responses depending on one's point of entry
The death of her brother haunts Helen Adams.  Taking an instamatic camera with her, she journeys to Vietnam determined to photograph the war.  From an initial viewpoint of innocence and naivete, Helen becomes drawn into the drama of the war and the lives of the soldiers and the Vietnamese people.  Like the lotus eaters in Homer's Odyssey, the war intoxicates Helen, compelling her towards it despite its horrors.  Anxious to make herself accepted by the men photojournalists, Helen must prove her toughness.  She develops close relationships with Sam Darrow, famed and experienced war photographer and Linh, a Vietnamese photographer and assistant.  Begininng with a powerful account of the fall of Saigon, Helen looks back on Vietnam and the two men.

Tajana Soli's THE LOTUS EATERS is a novel that will provoke several responses depending on one's point of entry.  For those readers who lived through the times, The LOTUS EATERS recalls the period with its conflicting emotions without becoming a pawn for current political motivations.  Tatjana Soli does not simplify or idealize the war, nor does she make Helen's story a pretense for anti-war sentiments.  To readers who lived through the period, Tatjana Soli does an excellent job of evoking the internal confusion and conflicts that unfold.  Although the author's bibliography and notes give the reader an idea of the research that underpins the novel, historical fiction lovers might find themselves craving more history within the story.  For readers whose young memories of the period are vivid yet ungrounded by being too young to truly grasp the actual events unfolding on the news, THE LOTUS EATERS does a better job at evoking the feel of the period than the history.  Readers who approach the book from the point of view of photography and the extensive study in Vietnam photojournalism as I did might find themselves overly troubled by a couple of inaccurately described details that jolt one out of the story and the ability to believe in Helen's character.  Leaving those moments aside, at times, Tatjana Soli captures perfectly the spirit of the photographers and their drive and yet I found myself wanting more of a visual emphasis in the narrative given Helen's job. 
As a whole, the reader does see the development in Helen from a naive inexperienced photographer to a photojournalist through the space of the narrative.  Several moments provide a keen sense of the visual, such as Helen's sense of location from the helicopter views, yet as a whole the narrative lacks the desired emphasis and continuity of visual perspective.

Like the conflicts of war, Tatjana Soli's portraits disturb.  Helen's relationship with Darrow feels destructive and yet her feelings for him draw her to him much like the compulsion of the lotus eaters.  At times, I felt repelled by Helen's overwhelming attachment to Darrow, wanting to see more of Helen as an individual in her own right rather than Helen as attached and focused on Darrow. Certainly, Helen and Darrow's relationship is not the idealized war romance!  Perhaps the power in the writing is in the author's ability to provoke such strong emotions, positive and negative, in her portrayal of relationship dynamics.  Several key moments in Helen's relationships with Darrow and Linh crystallize the scene and the emotion with a poetical precision.  Despite some missed potential in some of the details, THE LOTUS EATERS clearly shows a powerful author in the making.

Publisher: St. Martin's Press (March 30, 2010)
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Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
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