"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear."
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli is the story of a brave, young woman, Helen Adams, an untrained but talented photojournalist who travels to Vietnam during the war years, determined to somehow understand more about the death of her brother, who died as a soldier there. As the first woman combat photographer, Helen is teased and not taken seriously by some of the men in the profession, but she manages to persevere.
Published in 2010, Tatjana Soli's debut novel starts with the fall of Saigon in 1975, and goes back in time to Helen's arrival in Vietnam 12 years earlier. Helen is seduced by the beauty of this country in Southeast Asia, with its azure skies and white sand beaches, and also by the Vietnam War (1959 - 1975) itself. For many combat photographers, including Helen, the war is like a drug, a source of adrenaline, fueled by risk and the closeness and presence of death, which give a new, heightened urgency to life. Like the lotus-eaters in Homer's Odyssey, who become addicted to the narcotic fruit and forget about returning home, Helen and other combat photographers become intoxicated by the war in Vietnam and find it hard to leave, even though they risk their lives by staying. In fact, they become adrenaline junkies, who thrive on the excitement, which is followed by brief moments of relief at their survival. In this state, Helen begins a love affair with a seasoned photojournalist, Sam Darrow, and a friendship with his assistant, an enigmatic Vietnamese man, Linh, and the story unfolds.
While I have read literature about World War II, this was my first novel about the Vietnam War, in which 3 to 4 million Vietnamese, 1.5 to 2 million Laotians and Cambodians, and about 60,000 American soldiers lost their lives. For me, it's always difficult to read about the devastation of war, although the writing in The Lotus Eaters is beautiful, and the story kept me up reading late at night (so much so that I became temporarily nocturnal). The author uses descriptive language, but she doesn't overdo it, so my imagination was ignited. Although I struggled to get through some of the violent parts--injury and death are omnipresent--I was rewarded by a rich and layered reading experience, by images as uncompromising and haunting as war photographs in Life magazine. Like the characters in the novel--Helen, Darrow, Linh, Robert, Matt, and others--I was fascinated and repulsed simultaneously by the events in this affecting book. (After reading The Lotus Eaters, I may need to read a sweet romance, or an English novel about manners, to recuperate from my Vietnam adventure.) Along with the violence, destruction, and death, Helen finds love, and a real sense of purpose in life.
Above all else, The Lotus Eaters is a story about courage. A story about a young woman who breaks into a field previously off-limits for women. A story about a woman who risks her life to give the world an honest look at the atrocities of war, and a few glimpses of humanity. A story about a woman who chooses to love, even though she is not sure that she will live to see another day. The Lotus Eaters is a riveting novel about having courage and hope even in the worst circumstances.
The author is generously offering a copy of The Lotus Eaters as a giveaway (U.S./Canada only).
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Special thanks to Lisa from TLC for the opportunity to review an advance readers' edition of this novel (which is why I didn't choose a quote from the book; it's not the final version). For more reviews of this book, visit the other stops on TLC's The Lotus Eaters book tour. Please stay tuned for an upcoming exclusive interview with Tatjana Soli.
The Lotus Eaters counts toward the Women Unbound Reading Challenge hosted by Aarti, Care, and Eva.