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It was hard to know what was true from what was false.  Mostly, it depended on whose side you were on.  Most of the time, the reality of a situation fell into a gray no-man’s land in between.  The Americans called it “the Vietnam war,” and the Vietnamese called it “the American war” to differentiate it from “the French war” that had come before it, although they referred to both wars as “the Wars of Independence.”  Most Americans found it highly insulting to be mentioned in the same breath with the colonial French.

(from The Lotus Eaters, page 132 in the ARC)

Tatjana Soli’s debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, is one of the best novels I’ve read about the Vietnam War.  This is one of those books that hits you hard in the gut over and over, but you don’t want it to stop because it’s so good and so important.  Most importantly, it has given me a new appreciation for my late father’s experiences in Vietnam.

The Lotus Eaters is a different kind of Vietnam novel, focusing not on the soldiers but seeing their experiences, their hell, through the eyes of Helen Adams, one of the first female combat photographers in Vietnam.  The book opens on April 28, 1975, during the Fall of Saigon, with Helen torn between escaping and staying behind to record the transition of the country to the North Vietnamese.  She makes her decision at the end of the first chapter, after which readers are taken back to 1963 to see the evolution of the main characters — Helen and the two men she loves, fellow photojournalist Sam Darrow and former Vietnamese soldier turned assistant Linh.  Soli follows the trio as they come to terms with their wartime experiences, each losing a part of themselves along the way, and gives readers a glimpse into the lives of the Vietnamese, blurring the lines between good and evil, right and wrong.

Through Helen, Darrow, and Linh, readers step into the villages, mingle with the people, feel the back-breaking work they endure in the rice paddies, and see how their lives have been turned upside down by the war.  Soli shows the humanity and the struggles of people viewed as the enemy and how both sides can learn from one another.  She brings the jungles to life, with their oppressive heat and odor of decay, and she thrusts readers, along with Helen, Darrow, and Linh, into the action.  I could feel my heart quicken as the sniper bullets zoomed past their heads and when guns were pointed at Helen’s head for capturing the injustices done to innocent villagers.  I felt Helen’s anger and hopelessness as innocent people were interrogated and murdered, and while I didn’t agree with her willingness to place herself in harm’s way to further her career, I could understand her ambition.  Soli doesn’t write extensive battle scenes, but the missions she describes through Helen’s eyes are graphic, raw, honest, and heart-breaking.  She shows that in war, nothing is black or white, and both beauty and horror can be found.

I loved The Lotus Eaters for the way in which Soli covers various aspects of a complicated war, touching upon the politics behind the war, the questions many had about why the United States became involved, and the mental breakdown of the soldiers in a sweltering hellhole where they had to worry about snipers and mines with every step they took.  Soli’s characters became real to me; I grew attached to them and loved them for and despite their fears, their desire to get ahead, their confusion about love and relationships in a time of war, their questions about the importance of their jobs, and their desire to live amongst the people rather than the 5-star Americanized hotels.  The Lotus Eaters is beautifully written and hard to put down.  It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year and likely will make my list of all-time favorites.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to participate in the tour for The Lotus Eaters.  Click here to check out the other tour stops.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Lotus Eaters from St. Martin’s Press for review purposes.  I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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