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A Non-Library Notable, “The Lotus Eaters”

I have a feeling that Lincoln City Libraries will soon own The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli, one of the fiction entries on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. For now, a person might try Interlibrary Loan to obtain a copy.

In short, “The Lotus Eaters” is the story of Helen Adams, who becomes a war photographer in Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s. She becomes addicted to the rush of taking pictures in dangerous situations. She falls in love with two men, a grizzled photographer who takes her under his wing, and a Vietnamese man who is his photographic assistant and guardian angel.

It’s told in chapters with various locations and years; the location and sometimes the year given at the start of each. The story opens with Helen in Saigon as the country is falling in April of 1975. She encounters a little girl who seems to have become lost from her family. The story gets picked up in various places and times, filling in the story of Helen, her career, her loves, and the war.

This isn’t an easy read. As with any book about war, there are difficult scenes. Sometimes Soli’s way of moving from place to place and year to year is disconcerting, but I had a sense that that’s what she intended.

My complaint about this story is that Soli tends to tell instead of show. The most egregious example of this is her description of a lovely Christmas dinner that is interrupted when Helen’s lover arrives just from a battlefield, dirty and bloody, to say that one of their colleagues died that day. He says, “Jack was killed tonight. We were ambushed in a jeep patrol in Gia Dinh.” Soli then writes, “The holiday mood destroyed, the host clapped a hand on his back then poured him a drink.” Did she need to tell us that the holiday mood was destroyed? I realize that a lot of context must be provided to explain cultural and historical details, but too often I sensed her writing an informational sentence instead of creating a way within the story to convey the information.

This book just won the James Tait Black Prize for fiction, so I have to believe that others found the writing excellent. I did enjoy the characters as Soli developed them. What I came to love about the story was how the country itself became almost a character. I felt myself far away.

I’ll recommend this general literary fiction readers and certainly to book groups–its historical context, ambitious female character, and interesting relationships will provide plenty of discussion fodder.

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