THE LOTUS EATERS
I was working in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. After the towers fell, the only person in our office who didn’t seem numb or scared or uncomprehending was a gentleman who, of his own volition, calmly ventured into the street to get sandwiches for the whole staff.
As it turned out, our coworker had witnessed the fall of Saigon.
It’s that care and composure—not to be mistaken for sangfroid—that Tatjana Soli conveys in the character of Linh, a Vietnamese photographer and soldier, in her first novel The Lotus Eaters (St. Martin’s, 2010). There’s plenty of love and squalor in this visceral book, which begins with Linh and his American lover Helen planning to flee the country on April 28, 1975, before traveling back in time to explore the big themes of journalistic ethics, appearance versus reality, and the expatriate identity crisis that’s as old as colonialism itself.
Linh is one sharp point of a love triangle that includes Helen, a photojournalist, and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Sam Darrow, Linh’s employer and friend as well as Helen’s mentor and sometime lover. (If you’re already thinking of The Quiet American, Soli deals with that literary baggage early on by having Helen toss the novel in the trash.)
The transformation of Helen from a naïf in high heels to a seasoned correspondent is the most enjoyable aspect of the book. Our heroine lost her father in the Korean War and her brother in Vietnam (the latter referred to as the “American War” by the locals), but these personal tragedies never seem like an easy psychological explanation for why a girl from California would immerse herself in a war zone. There’s a sense of destiny and urgency throughout the novel, a fearlessness to the writing that mirrors Helen’s own determination to take on dangerous assignments and prove herself in an era when female foreign correspondents were a curiosity.
Though Helen’s frame of reference is the first one we see, the engine of the third-person narrative is Linh, who at one point is portrayed as looking like he’s been “dipped in hell.” “We are different from Americans,” he says. “We only share important things with people who have earned our trust. Otherwise, we dishonor our memories.” What happened to him and his village is not spelled out until the end, but throughout the book, Soli rises to the challenge of representing the emotional life of a man who believes “detachment the only answer to the constant onslaught of loss.” She also manages to flesh out the romantic stereotype of the macho-yet-sensitive foreign correspondent Darrow, who represents the conflicts inherent in war photography: How does your presence influence events? Are you a witness or a vulture? Do images inure us to suffering?
Part of the appeal of war fiction is the carefully curated toolbox of details that creates instant authenticity. Here, we learn that in the field, you cannot give morphine to a patient with a head wound; you are not to shower with soap or shampoo, lest the enemy smell a Westerner from afar; stay away from unopened beer cans, lighters, or broken-down wheelbarrows, as they may be booby-trapped. The set pieces that take place out on patrol are foreboding, Soli piling on the descriptions so that each page is a full sensory immersion: “They fanned out and moved quickly down the gentle grass slope, their long, loose strides stirring up hundreds of greenish yellow grasshoppers that jumped waist-high in their path… The sun fell in heavy, flat planks, smothering sound…”
A few weaknesses mar this otherwise strong debut. From time to time, the narrative wobbles when it changes point-of-view, sometimes mid-paragraph. For a writer, deciding on the level of omniscience is almost like choosing a religion: the type of narrative deity, whether distant and all-seeing or more personal and close-to-the-ground, will decide how much agency you have over your kingdom. The book could use more balance when shifting from one person to another; the flow is interrupted when the story digresses to include the thoughts of minor players. Also, Soli occasionally works against her careful characterizations by overstating the feelings and motivations of Helen and Darrow. They are already so well drawn that this emotional padding is unnecessary.
We have all been to “the Nam,” whether through books or film, but rarely do we get a larger picture of Vietnam. In the author’s notes, Soli admits, “I have been an eager reader of every book and every movie on Vietnam I’ve come across since I can remember, so influences are many and impossible to pinpoint.” It’s to her credit that her research and inspirations are so freshly integrated into the storytelling that the country comes off as a place we have never encountered.