Simply Reading: The Lotus Eaters

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.

Photo by Henri Houet

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.

Although I’m still in the early stages of the novel and have yet to discover Helen’s fate, I’m reading slowly, savoring Soli’s very interesting writing style – poetically descriptive passages often followed by short abrupt sentences which pull the reader up short like  bursts of gunfire. I’m reading it electronically in Subtext, which includes lots of fascinating notes by Soli herself as well as interesting commentary from journalists, reviewers, and other readers.
Having come of age in the shadow of that war, I’m completely engrossed in Soli’s perspective and basking in her knowledge.
Simply stunning.
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4 thoughts on “Simply Reading: The Lotus Eaters

  1. I bought a copy of this at the weekend from a remainder book shop after Danielle mentioned it on her blog and reading your post makes me want to start it straight away – although i have to say that the US book cover is much nicer than the UK one!
    I hadn’t heard of Dickey Chapelle before but after a quick look at the link about her, I think I will have to try and find out more

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