In Homer's Odyssey, there exists a country of Lotus Eaters. The inhabitants of this land live on the flowering lotus blossom, that tastes like honey and whose effects are so narcotic that all those ingesting the plant never want to leave and return home.
I can't think of a more perfect title for this intoxicating, powerful novel about a group of photographers in Vietnam. The lotus blossom in this case being the allure of war - the thrill of danger, the desire to make a difference, the urgency of love found there. It is an addiction that some will never break free.
Synopsis: The story starts off in total chaos, confusion, panic, gunfire - the fall of Saigon, 1975. Helen and Linh, two photographers for Time, are fighting to evacuate the city. Linh has been wounded and they must find medical help or he will die. Once Linh has been ushered to safety, Helen disappears back into the city. She must be the one to capture these historic events, no matter the risk. The narcotic is still in her blood.
Twelve years earlier, Helen arrived a naive young woman, determined to photograph a war that took her brother's life. Over the years, she transforms from a terrified, bumbling child to a hardened, celebrated war correspondent, earning awards and magazine covers for photos taken that could have cost her life. Her success has not been easy. Women were considered a burden by not only the troops she embedded, but other male photographers.
We come along for this nail-biting ride, where we experience the beauty of the Vietnam countryside, the senseless and violent death of the soldier that just shared his rations with you 10 minutes prior, the camaraderie and competition between the journalists, and the dichotomy of falling in love amongst the ruins of a war-torn country.
My thoughts: I thought I'd read it all when it came to this war. For the Vietnam reading challenge alone, I've witnessed the war from the ground, from the air, from the survivors who became foreigners in their own homeland. In fact, this book sat at my bedside for most of the year (I won it from Carrie), because I really didn't think it was going to show me anything new. I've been humbled. This book rendered me gobsmacked.
Without seeming crowded or forced, the story embraces the war in its totality. It isn't just about the brutality, the confusion of our mission, the addiction to adrenaline, the heat, the smells, the bugs, the drug culture, or the aftermath, individually. It's all in there, so expertly constructed that you truly feel that you are living it, hiding in bunkers, watching executions and eating canned peaches.
And speaking of expertly constructed, this may be Soli's debut novel, but she is one talented lady. Her prose is beautiful and rich, her characters complicated and fully-realized. You finish the book feeling full - satiated with words and images - and in awe of her skill.
The general focus of the novel, of course, is the role of the war journalist. If you've ever seen the movie "The Killing Fields", you just might experience moments of dejavu, in the best possible way. Is it immoral to chase after and record such tragedy?
The journalists were in a questionable fraternity while out in the field, squabbling and arguing among themselves, each sensing the unease of the situation. No getting around the ghoulishness of pouncing on tragedy with hungry eyes, snatching it away, glorying in its taking even among the most sympathetic. "I got an incredible shot of a dead soldier/woman/child. A real tearjerker." Afterward, film exposed, they sat on the returning plane with a kind of postcoital shame, turning away from one another.
Beneath that exterior, however, is a love story. One that, because of the daily brushes with death, becomes vital, spiritual and hungry. For those of you who roll their eyes at anything involving affairs of the heart, please know that I am among the ranks of the jaded and skeptical. This was an entirely different ball game; more raw and physiological, like breathing, than mushy and predictable.
So here in the homestretch of 2010, I've discovered one of the year's best. This one is not to be missed. I'd like to thank TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of spreading the word.
Giveaway: The publisher has kindly offered a copy of this book to one lucky winner (US and Canada only). Simply leave an expression of interest in your comment with your e-mail before December 27th.
5 out of 5 stars