Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: The Lotus Eaters

Author: Tatjana Soli
Format: hard cover 400  pgs; (I also listened to sections of the audio)
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Characters: Helen Adams, Sam Darrow, Nguyen Pran Linh
Subject: war
Setting: Vietnam
Genre: historical fiction
Source: ARC from St. Martin's Press
Challenge: War through the Generation

I found this a difficult read, not because of the writing, which was extraordinary, but because of the subject matter.  I am of the Vietnam generation, and the subject matter is still, after almost 40 years, difficult to confront.  The book opens at the end of the war, a devise I often dislike, but it works well in this story. After the first chapter, we return to the beginning of the war, where the main character, Helen Adams, arrives in Vietnam to work as a novice free lance press photographer, eager to find out more about a war that has killed her brother and a country that no one seems to know much about.

As Helen moves through her days, she finds a solid job with a news magazine, and falls in love not only with another member of the press, but with the country and the people of Vietnam.  Helen's story is Vietnam's story, and Soli presents it in stunning, action-packed, but slow-paced prose, allowing us to drink in the scenery, the mind-set, the culture and the history.

We are able to see some of the background of the French occupation of the country and the origins of the  the war, the treacheries wrought by each participant in the conflict upon the other sides, and upon the long-suffering people of the villages.  It is here, in the descriptions of village life, that the book really shines.  By focusing on the impact of military actions on the villagers who are the victims, as well as the soldiers participating in them, we are given a mind-searing picture of what war is.

Helen's personal story--the love affairs, as well as the mental and physical anguish she endures-- is the framework on which Soli hangs the well researched story of troop maneuvers and military strategies: the life and death moments that emerge as photos in Helen's dark room, blooming as the picture bursts forth in our minds like toner in developing pans. They are pictures that still haunt those who really participated in the conflict.

In addition to the print edition which I received from the publisher, I was able to listen to the audio version of this beautiful novel.  I am a reader who much prefers the audio format due to some physical limitations.  This one is superbly done in audio, read with exquisite insight by Kirsten Potter. In both versions, the reader is able to experience the beauty, the horror, the sounds, the sights, the smells of a country and a conflict known simply as Vietnam.

The ending to Helen's story  is one that, like the war, was not totally acceptable to any of the participants, but did provide a framework that allowed everyone to stumble forward with life.

Many thanks to St. Martin's Press for providing a review copy for which I received no other compensation.


  1. I absolutely loved this book, so whenever I see a positive review of it I am happy. This has definitely been one of my favorite reads of the year.

    I am driven crazy by the plot device of starting at the end of the story and flashing back, but you're right, it does work in this book. So often though, in other books, it ends up taking away from the tension of the rest of the story because you already know what's going to happen.

  2. This book sounds vaguely familiar but I can't say I have seen much about it for some reason. Which since you both liked it so much is a shame.
    I am not a huge fan of books with war settings, but this might be an exception.


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