Wednesday, March 4, 2015

THE LOTUS EATERS by Tatjana Soli

The book opens as the war in Vietnam is ending.  Helen and Linh, both magazine photographers, are desperately trying to get out on one of the last choppers.  At this point, the relationship between Helen, an intrepid thirty-something American, and Linh, a Vietnamese national, is unclear.  Then the book reboots to 1965, when Helen, a fledgling photographer, has just arrived in Vietnam, trying to gain some sense of the war that killed her brother.  Helen may have a death wish herself, as she becomes more and more neglectful of her own safety, attempting to establish the fact that she can stomach the violence as well as her male counterparts.  One of those is Sam Darrow, older but not necessarily wiser.  Sam has a wife back home, but here he is an adrenalin junkie, with a long string of female conquests.  Linh is his assistant, and later Helen’s adviser and protector, who has served on both sides of the war and whose wife perished during the conflict.   These three characters are the heart and soul of the book, forming a sort of love triangle that is actually more emotionally compelling than the ghastly tragedies of the war.  Unfortunately, the violence and bloodshed, though necessary to the storyline, in some ways seem too much like a newsreel.  Plus, the other characters are so transient that I had some difficulty relating to them.  My concern was only for the welfare of Helen, Sam, and Linh, but only Linh seems to have any sanity where his own survival is concerned.  Overall, this was a good read, but I can’t help thinking that it could have been better if the author had built a little more suspense along the way and made the war casualties a little more personal.  Certainly, the author plays up the ambiguities of the unpopular war, especially Linh’s divided loyalties, but also in a character’s suicide, which may or may not have been intentional.  Also, I have mixed feelings about how much she gives away at the beginning before sending us into the past to learn the backstory.  Too much knowledge of the outcome diminishes the suspense even further, while at the same time providing a bit of comfort that we’re not going to lose everyone.  As for most of those that we do lose, I felt that their loss would have been more poignant if I had gotten to know them a little better.

No comments: