When I discovered this book was about the Vietnam War I was hesitant to read it; it would obviously take me deep into the realities of the fighting and the atrocities through the perspective of a combat photographer. I’m not big on war stories. But The Lotus Eaters is such a well written novel, I was immediately drawn into the story of Helen Adams, an amateur photographer who goes to Vietnam on a lark in 1963 and becomes the first woman photographer to “embed” with troops as they go out on patrols. She eventually becomes a legend for her photographs and her ability to get into the thick of things for “the one shot.”
But what I want to explore a bit in this post is the exhilaration of war, the addictive qualities for some people of being in a situation that is so risky and chaotic and so outside the norm, that to return to a life of order and calm is nearly impossible.
Reading this novel, I was constantly reminded of a talk I heard in 2003 by Chris Hedges, author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Hedges, who was a war correspondent for many years, argues that “war seduces entire societies, creating fictions that the public believes and relies on to continue to support conflicts.” "The Hurt Locker," a recent award winning film about Iraq, opens with a quote from Hedges’ book: "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” It also reminded me a bit of "The Deer Hunter."
We are used to hearing and seeing stories of men becoming enamored of war, about the effects of them seeing so much violence, about PTSD and the difficulty in returning home. To have this book be about a woman experiencing these things was brilliant. We watch Helen go from being a naïve, compassionate young woman who wants to save injured chickens, to being hardened by her experiences to the point of being unable to return to her former life in Southern California:
At first the house and the small beach town that she had longed for while in Vietnam had seemed calcified, dead, as white and clean as bone. But slowly it came to life, or she came to life within it. But it wasn’t the life she wanted.Helen also develops a deep love for Vietnam, the country.
The sight of people going about their days, shopping in markets, eating in restaurants, playing with children in parks, laughing and drinking and talking, created a deep resentment inside her. Perfectly happy living their lives, Helen thought, which is all anyone should want, and yet how blind, how oblivious to the biggest story in the world. (page 276)
“…Vietnamese legend told that every shade of green in the world originated in this mountain range. The emerald backbone of the dragon from which the people of Vietnam sprang. Until then she had been blind, but when she saw those mountains, she slipped beneath the surface of the war and found the country.” (17)One of the many things I appreciated about The Lotus Eaters is Soli’s refusal to sugarcoat the events. No one comes off as the good guy here, which is true to the reality of the conflict. The portrait she paints of the war, of the country and the people, of the conflicted feelings of the Vietnamese people and of the Americans both at home and taking part in the war, felt so authentic it was hard for me to believe that she hadn’t lived this story. The scenes of violence were real, but I didn’t feel hit over the head with them. There were times of high tension when I think I held my breath for minutes! And the writing is exquisite in places.
I also learned a great deal about this time period. Even though I lived through it and was personally affected by some events of the Vietnam War, I’ve remained pretty ignorant about some pieces of history, particularly the French occupation of Vietnam, and the fall of Saigon. I spent quite a bit of time looking up bits of history and geography as I read.
So The Lotus Eaters accomplishes a great deal from my perspective – it is entertaining, well written, educational, emotionally involving and authentic. A stellar accomplishment for a debut novel. Highly recommended.