The Lotus Eaters begins with the following quote from The Odyssey:
Those who ate the honeyed fruit of the plant lost any wish to come back and bring us news. All they now wanted was to stay where they were with the Lotus-eaters, to browse on the lotus, and to forget all thoughts of return.
It’s really the perfect quote to capture what this novel is about.
The Lotus Eaters follows Helen Adams, a photographer who drops out of college in 1965 to head to Vietnam because she doesn’t want to miss the war before it’s over. Ten years later, she’s still in Saigon as the Americans begin to pull out of the country.
The novel starts there, with Helen’s desire to cover the takeover of the city, and then moves back to her arrival in Saigon as a naive young woman who barely knows how to use her camera. She’s eager to prove herself amidst the (mostly male) American journalists and photographers. She has to fight to be sent out to the field and then fights to be treated equally amongst the soldiers on the front lines. She’s come to Vietnam to learn more about her brother’s death there, to somehow match his exploits. She stays because of love, because of obsession, because there is always one more picture to take.
The story unfolds, telling the tale of Helen’s relationships with two men. Sam Darrow, an American war photographer, already famous before arriving in Veitnam. And Linh, Vietnamese, a former soldier, sometimes photographer, full of conflicted interests and haunted by the loss he has experienced. These men – and Helen’s relationships with them – seem to work almost as manifestations of parts of Helen’s life and personality, of the choices she makes about her life and her time in Vietnam.
This is a book about war and how it changes you but also what it means to bear witness to war. What does it do to a person to watch death and destruction? What does it cost to witness atrocity and to take photos of it? How long can you do this before it’s too late?
The story is very well-written and highly nuanced. Although Helen continually makes decisions I wouldn’t, Soli does a great job of making her a real person and enabling the reader to understand why Helen might make the choices she does. Toward the end of the novel is this paragraph, which expresses this theme of witness and responsibility well:
Helen closed her eyes. She thought of the rolls of film in the car, the images cradled in emulsion, areas of darkness and light like the beginnings of the universe. She herself full of latent images taken over the years, and yet what she had seen would stay inside her, hidden…We close our eyes to spare ourselves or those we love. To see demanded responsibility. To gain power over their enemies, armies blindfolded prisoners.
A common theme in everything I’ve read (fiction or non) about the Vietnam War is how beautiful the country itself is. That continues here with luscious descriptions, often set against horrific actions. The juxtaposition is purposely jarring and only adds to what we see of Helen’s change and personal development.
I recommend this one. And for a non-fiction read about journalism in the Vietnam War, I also recommend Dispatches by Michael Herr.