It’s probably a misnomer to say I’ve been simply reading The Lotus Eaters, this excellent novel by Tatjana Soli. There’s nothing simple about the Vietnam War or about that country’s culture. Soli has constructed a complex masterwork that delves deeply into both those themes, but frames it all within a love story about Helen, a female photographer who has to decide what is more important to her…the war, or her relationship with the gentle poet Linh.
Hard to believe someone could become addicted to war, but Helen seems to have done that. She seems most in love with the images the war provides her, the opportunity to take her craft to an entirely new level. “Long ago she had become more ambitious than feeling. She had fallen in love with images instead of living things. Except for Linh.”
I am in awe of the research Soli has done for this book. On her website, she says that she has been “haunted” by the Vietnam War since she was a “small girl,” calling it a “mysterious force that shaped the world around her.” Growing up near Monterey, California, she “read everything she could get her hands on” about the war. It amazes me that a “small girl” would be touched so deeply by such a complex event from the past, and would retain this fascination throughout her life, parlaying it into her work as an adult.
Soli found the inspiration for Helen and the focus for her novel in Dickey Chapelle, one of the first woman female war correspondents who was killed in Vietnam on November 4, 1965 while on patrol with a Marine platoon during a search and destroy operation. Soli wrote that finding this photograph of Chapelle being administered the Last Rites “set a fire” in her, as she had never heard about any female photojournalists in that war.