Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Review: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

It was hard to know what was true from what was false.  Mostly, it depended on whose side you were on.  Most of the time, the reality of a situation fell into a gray no-man's land in between.  The Americans called it "the Vietnam war," and the Vietnamese called it "the American war" to differentiate it from "the French war" that had come before it, although they referred to both wars as "the Wars of Independence."  Most Americans found it highly insulting to be mentioned in the same breath with the colonial French.  (from The Lotus Eaters, page 132 in the ARC)

Tatjana Soli's debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, is one of the best novels I've read about the Vietnam War.  This is one of those books that hits you hard in the gut over and over, but you don't want it to stop because it's so good and so important.  Most importantly, it has given me a new appreciation for my late father's experiences in Vietnam.

The Lotus Eaters is a different kind of Vietnam novel, focusing not on the soldiers but seeing their experiences, their hell, through the eyes of Helen Adams, one of the first female combat photographers in Vietnam.  The book opens on April 28, 1975, during the Fall of Saigon, with Helen torn between escaping and staying behind to record the transition of the country to the North Vietnamese.  She makes her decision at the end of the first chapter, after which readers are taken back to 1963 to see the evolution of the main characters -- Helen and the two men she loves, fellow photojournalist Sam Darrow and former Vietnamese soldier turned assistant Linh.  Soli follows the trio as they come to terms with their wartime experiences, each losing a part of themselves along the way, and gives readers a glimpse into the lives of the Vietnamese, blurring the lines between good and evil, right and wrong.

Through Helen, Darrow, and Linh, readers step into the villages, mingle with the people, feel the back-breaking work they endure in the rice paddies, and see how their lives have been turned upside down by the war.  Soli shows the humanity and the struggles of people viewed as the enemy and how both sides can learn from one another.  She brings the jungles to life, with their oppressive heat and odor of decay, and she thrusts readers, along with Helen, Darrow, and Linh, into the action.  I could feel my heart quicken as the sniper bullets zoomed past their heads and when guns were pointed at Helen's head for capturing the injustices done to innocent villagers.  I felt Helen's anger and hopelessness as innocent people were interrogated and murdered, and while I didn't agree with her willingness to place herself in harm's way to further her career, I could understand her ambition.  Soli doesn't write extensive battle scenes, but the missions she describes through Helen's eyes are graphic, raw, honest, and heart-breaking.  She shows that in war, nothing is black or white, and both beauty and horror can be found.

I loved The Lotus Eaters for the way in which Soli covers various aspects of a complicated war, touching upon the politics behind the war, the questions many had about why the United States became involved, and the mental breakdown of the soldiers in a sweltering hellhole where they had to worry about snipers and mines with every step they took.  Soli's characters became real to me; I grew attached to them and loved them for and despite their fears, their desire to get ahead, their confusion about love and relationships in a time of war, their questions about the importance of their jobs, and their desire to live amongst the people rather than the 5-star Americanized hotels.  The Lotus Eaters is beautifully written and hard to put down.  It's easily one of the best books I've read this year and likely will make my list of all-time favorites.

The Lotus Eaters is the second book I've read for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations.


Thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to participate in the tour for The Lotus Eaters.  Click here to check out the other tour stops.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of The Lotus Eaters from St. Martin's Press for review purposes.  I am an Amazon affiliate.



© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.

31 comments:

Carrie said...

Well, this book sounds incredibly meaningful and like it has a great depth to it! Thanks for sharing about it. This one sounds like one I would find myself rather enjoying.

LisaMM said...

Anna, wow, what an incredibly powerful review! I'm so glad you loved it (and blown away that it could make your list of all time favorites! That's really saying something coming from someone who reads as much as you do!) Thank you so much for being on the tour and for all the time you put into reading and reviewing this book. It is greatly appreciated.

Eva said...

This sounds right up my alley!

Darlene said...

That's saying a lot being one of your favorites Anna. I wish I had joined this tour because now I'd really like to read this book. It sounds fantastic!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I haven't started reading anything for the Vietnam challenge yet, so why not this one? I think it is going to be a summer project. I'm pretty impressed you think this was one of the best you've read!

drey said...

Wow, Anna. I wanted to be part of the tour, but didn't get back in time... =( I will have to add this to my wish list! Thanks for the awesome review.

Staci said...

This one absolutely sounds like one I would love to read...especially because when I was in high school we never touched on the Vietnam War...ever. I find that I read a lot of WWII books but really nothing from this time period. I so need to get my hands on a copy of this one!

Anna said...

Carrie: Definitely! I hope you give it a try.

Serena: I can't wait for you to finish it so we can discuss.

LisaMM: Thanks! I'm always happy to gush about great books. I have a lot of books on my all-time favorites list, but I guess it's not that many considering the number of books I've read in my lifetime. ;)

Eva: I do hope you give it a try!

Darlene: I think you'd enjoy this one. I hope you get a chance to read it soon.

Sandy: Looking forward to your Vietnam reviews. I haven't read as many Vietnam books as I have WWII, so... Still, though, I think this book is fabulous on it's own, never mind the connection to my fascination with war books.

drey: Thanks! I hope you get a chance to read this one soon.

Staci: I didn't learn about Vietnam either (until college), and I'd probably know nothing about it if I hadn't heard my dad's stories or taken a Vietnam War literature course in college. I hope you give this one a try.

Suko said...

Reading your review brought back the sights and sounds and smells, the terror and beauty, evoked in this book. Excellent review of a most riveting novel!

Anna said...

Suko: Thanks! This is a book I know will stay with me for awhile.

lilly said...

Great review! It sounds like a real must-read. At least it sounds like it to me considering that I am not so great on Vietnam war lit.

Sullivan McPig said...

Great review.
Sounds like an interesting book.

Blodeuedd said...

Sounds like a good one. I never did think about it being called the Vietnam War, co yes why would they call it that

bermudaonion said...

Wow, this sounds fantastic! I can't wait to read it now.

Diane said...

excellent job anna! your review really makes me want to read this one.

Melody said...

I've heard a lot of good things about this book, so I'll definitely look out for this book. Thanks for the review, Anna!

christina said...

I cannot wait to read this book. I got it in my mail a couple of weeks ago. Yay!

Anna said...

lilly: I think it would be a great introduction to Vietnam War lit. Even if you don't know much about the history or politics of the war, you can follow the book and not get lost.

Sullivan McPig: Thanks! Hope you give it a try.

Blodeuedd: I never thought of that either. That's one of the things I loved about the book -- it makes you rethink what you think you know about the war.

bermudaonion: I can't wait to read your thoughts on it.

Iliana said...

This sounds wonderful! I haven't really read much fiction set around this timeframe or setting so I'll have to add this one to my list. Plus, I think the viewpoint, from a photojournalist, must be just fascinating. Great review, Anna!

Anna said...

Iliana: I think you'd like this one. Most of the Vietnam books I've read center on the soldiers, so it was nice seeing things from a different POV.

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

Oh, this sounds perfect for the Vietnam War Challenge. I shouldn't have passed it up during the TLC tour. Off to add it to my TBR!

Rebecca :) said...

This looks really good, Anna. I am adding it to my TBR!

Lisa said...

I loved this one, too! I became so attached to the characters. And that ending--wow!

Wanda said...

Life commitments are taking up alot of my reading time this year ... I didn't sign up for the Vietnam challenge but with that review, this one is going on my must read list!

Stephanie said...

This book sounds outstanding, though I'm sure parts are very difficult to read. Thanks for the great review.

Dreamybee said...

I haven't read much about Vietnam, and I think part of the reason is because I feel like a lot of the stuff out there is more about the war itself rather than about the people who were there and their stories. (That may be totally off-base, but that's my perception) This sounds like the prefect antidote for that.

I don't know if you ever watched Quantum Leap, but your review reminded me of the series finale "The Leap Home" where Sam finds himself in Vietnam, working with a photojournalist-the ending of that one just kills me!

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

Great review Anna! You really did justice to this book! :)

Shellie (Layers of Thought) said...

Wow that good...
Question what is the link for the title and the lotus eaters in ancient Mediterranean myth? or was there one? :)
Thanks Anna

Literary Feline said...

I am so glad you liked this one too, Anna. It really was an incredible read and is on my all time favorite's list now too. Thank you for your great review.

Nymeth said...

Wonderful review, Anna. I've heard such great things about this novel - from you, from Wendy, from Carrie, from Amy. Clearly it's something I need to read.

Anna said...

*Diane: Thanks! I do hope you give this one a try.

*Melody: I can't recommend it enough. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

*christina: I can't wait to read your thoughts!

*Natasha: It's a great selection for the challenge. I'm so glad I decided to join the tour.

*Rebecca: I hope you give this one a try!

*Lisa: Glad to see you loved it, too!

*Wanda: I completely understand. It's been crazy for me, too. I don't think I'll read as much for this challenge as I did for the WWII one.

*Stephanie: It definitely is a heavy book, but it's so worth it.

*Dreamybee: I haven't read tons of Vietnam War literature, but most of what I've come across is from a soldier's perspective. I wanted to read this one because it's so different from what I've read already. Quantum Leap was one of those shows that never interested me, but my husband really liked it! Looks like I missed out on an interesting episode.

*Sheila: Thanks!

*Shellie: The title is explained in a quote at the beginning of the book.

*Literary Feline: Glad to hear you loved it, too.

*Nymeth: Thanks! I hope you give it a try. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.