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Book review: "The Lotus Eaters," by Tatjana Soli

By Masha Hamilton
Saturday, April 3, 2010; C08

THE LOTUS EATERS

By Tatjana Soli

St. Martin's. 389 pp. $24.99

Novels and movies can sometimes find themselves treading on shared territory. Such is the case with Tatjana Soli's first novel, "The Lotus Eaters," about a photojournalist covering the Vietnam War who finds her life transformed by the violence she witnesses from behind her camera. As with the Academy Award-winning "The Hurt Locker," this novel examines the addiction to that adrenaline rush sometimes experienced by those unlucky enough to fall prey to what James Hillman has called the "terrible love of war."

Lotus eaters, in Greek mythology, taste and then become possessed by the narcotic plant. Already an accomplished short story writer, Soli uses as her epigraph a passage from Homer's "Odyssey" in which the lotus eaters are robbed of their will to return home. It is a clue, right from the start, that this novel will delve into the lives of those who become so fixated on recording savagery that life in a peaceful, functioning society begins to feel banal and inconsequential.

The novel also explores the way violence can sharpen longing. An unacknowledged love triangle opens up between newcomer Helen Adams; Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Sam Darrow, who has given his life to documenting conflict; and his assistant, Linh, a contained, often mysterious Vietnamese man who has a deeper and more personal understanding of war than the other two. But it is not a triangle of competition or antagonism; rather, it is one of wistfulness, formed by the recognition that in the midst of harsh and dangerous surroundings, we take love where we can get it and with gratitude, like scooping water into our hands in an arid land.

Helen arrives in Vietnam as a naive young photographer, as interested in understanding the death of her brother, a soldier killed in Vietnam, as she is in taking good pictures. Darrow quickly becomes both her flirtatious competitor and her mentor. In Helen, Darrow sees an earlier version of himself. He watches from afar as she forges her own relationship with the country and its conflict. "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough," photojournalist Robert Capa famously said, and this is the dilemma that Helen faces: How close should she get? And when she's frightened and backing away, is she then essentially no longer a war photographer?

Helen will eventually spend a decade in Vietnam, but when she first arrives, Darrow is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of experience. He is more than a veteran; he has been at this work so long that he has stopped questioning what he is fleeing from or running toward. As his relationship to Helen deepens, he promises to head home, only to find he isn't sure anymore where home is or if he can actually leave the artificial reality of wartime that has given meaning to his life.

Linh's story may be the most complex, and it's revealed layer by layer through the course of the novel. As a Vietnamese who has lost nearly everything, he sees his country through clearer eyes than either Helen or Darrow. He romanticizes neither the drama of war nor his resilient countrymen. Yet he is the most deeply rooted in Vietnam, and as he is forced to play one side off another, his dilemma feels authentic and sharply delineated: How should a local assistant to these visiting Western photographers navigate the demands of opposing loyalties?

Though the novel explores war primarily from the journalists' viewpoint, the secondary characters are generously drawn. In Soli's hands, edgy, frightened soldiers and hardened commanders rise above stock characters. But Helen is at the heart of this story as she, like many journalists, pays a dear personal price for covering violence. The Vietnam conflict has receded into the history books, but "The Lotus Eaters" feels pulled from today's headlines, full of meaning for readers whose country is once again sending men and women to the battlefields, both to fight and to document that fighting.

Hamilton is a former foreign correspondent and the author of four novels, most recently "31 Hours."

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