Book Review: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus Eaters is a historical fiction about three photojournalists brought together during the Vietnam War. Helen Adams, a naive girl from California who drops out of college to travel across the ocean, hoping to change the world through her pictures. Sam Darrow, an experienced Pulitzer prize winning photographer, jaded by violence, but finds it difficult to turn away from it just the same. Linh, the son of a Vietnamese scholar, is changed by the war and finds himself working for an American magazine, but his own allegiances are a mystery even to himself.

But the novel is also so much more than that. It is a story about three individuals connected by their love for their work, for each other, and for a war-torn country in the final years before its fall. It is about people feeling like outsiders in their own country. It is about war, art and love. And it is about dangerous ambition, obsession and addiction.

Layer upon layer, the Tatjana Soli builds upon these themes in her book. I found the story slow to take off at first, but with every page the emotions and the tensions built up and I found myself just wanting to read more.

The writing is beautiful, almost poetic, and perfect for the premise and solemn tone of the story. In keeping with the genre of historical fiction, descriptions of actual events and key figures of the Vietnam War play a huge role, but for me the most memorable aspect of the novel was the author’s use of powerful imagery. Vietnam itself almost becomes a distinct character, the jungle and 1960’s Saigon taking on lives of their own. The descriptions of the latter setting are so realistic, it almost feels as if you are actually standing there in the city’s streets. I thought the author did an excellent job writing about the different faces of the country, detailing the horrors of war but also taking time to describe the beauty of the untouched countryside.

This is also a very emotional book, delving deep into the thoughts and feelings of each character. The book changes points of views frequently, which can be a little confusing, but I still got to know Helen, Darrow and Linh very well. At times it became difficult to read this book, because of how very little I related to the characters.

Helen came off exactly as the author intended, naive and idealistic when she arrives in Vietnam but gradually transforms into hardened photojournalist, completely numb to her pain and fear and becoming much like her colleague Sam Darrow. Darrow was more of a mystery to me, a flawed and tortured character, though not in the way which invoked any of my sympathies. Their relationship frustrated me from beginning to end, watching the futility of her trying to tame him. Both made excuses for what I felt were their selfishness and hypocrisy, but it was all written so well. Addiction can take many forms, and this is one of the themes I felt the book explored.

I was more impressed with the character of Linh, however, even though the first chapter did little to endear him to me. But subsequent chapters slowly changed my mind as we started learning more about him in the context of his past and his culture. His connection with Helen becomes almost like an allegory for the relationship between the two countries.

The more I read, the more I was drawn in. I didn’t necessarily have to understand the characters or their motivations to enjoy this book. While the war and the soldiers were a major presence, I felt it was interesting that the author chose to focus on the life of a female photographer for the novel’s premise.

Note: I received a copy of The Lotus Eaters through participating in a Goodreads giveaway. I would like to thank Goodreads, the publisher and the author for opportunity.


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