I've read a number of novels set during the Vietnam era, but none from the perspective used in Tatjana Solis' debut novel, The Lotus Eaters: that of the press, photographers in-country documenting the war for wire services and publications. Published back in the USA, their work was one of the factors that inspired and drove the anti-war movement...but this novel suggests that some of these journalists were driven by a rather different agenda.
Helen Adams dropped out of college and took a couple of cameras to Vietnam in 1965, seeking to understand how her brother, a Special Forces soldier, had died there; she went hurriedly, afraid the war would be over before she could get there. As we know now, there was no need to fear for that - there was almost ten years left to go. And while soldiers came and went during those ten years - the lucky one getting to go home - many of the photographers stayed on, unable to tear themselves away from the uncertainties and fascinations of a country that was being ravaged by war in a new and unfamiliar way. They were as the Lotus-eaters from the Odyssey, quoted in the novel's epigraph:
"They who ate the fruit of the honeyed 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."
That's not entirely the case for Helen, until she's injured and does get the chance to go back home to California; then she finds that life without the stimulation of wartime isn't enough life for her, and she vows to go back:
"This is what happened when one left one's home - pieces of oneself scattered all over the world, no place ever completely satisfied, always a nostalgia for the place left behind."
But the nostalgia for Vietnam exerts a stronger pull than that for California, and once she returns to Southeast Asia, she willingly remains until shes literally one of the very last to leave - forced out by the fall of Saigon, nearly ten years after her first arrival there.
The Lotus Eaters opens on Helen's final days in Saigon with her Vietnamese partner, Linh, but soon flashes back to her arrival in-country, moving forward from there through her experiences in the city, in the field, and with the other photographers. Two of those photographers play pivotal roles: Sam Darrow, who becomes Helen's professional mentor and her lover (despite a wife back home), and Linh, who progresses from assistant to photojournalist in his own right while moving from one side to another in the conflict.
]I was very impressed with this debut novel. The author's knowledge of the Vietnam experience is research-based, not personal (she's not old enough to have been there), but one might guess otherwise; she's exceedingly effective at placing the reader inside the story. I felt the exhilaration and the horror of this particularly complex war - one in which allegiances were fluid, fighting occurred via guerrilla attacks rather than on traditional battlefields, and what America's soldiers were doing there was questioned almost constantly - and the intensity of relationships formed in the thick of it. I could visualize the pictures Helen and the photographers were taking and sending back home. Solis' language, with phrasing sometimes fragmented, gave the story an almost dreamlike feel at times, and I found that appropriate to the conditions she was describing; the characters she created to tell the story were original and memorable.
I was drawn into this novel immediately, and my interest never flagged; it was the last book I read in 2010, and it ended my reading year on a high note.