Love and War in Vietnam

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The Lotus Eaters By Tatjana Soli, book reviewHelen Adams is a photographic journalist living and working in Vietnam during the War. We join her towards the end of her stay there and find out that she was in a relationship with a well-known photographer called Sam Darrow, whom she accompanied to war zones with the aim of photographing the horrors of the war. However, Sam died and Helen became involved with his assistant, a Vietnamese man called Linh. The story of how Helen came to be in Vietnam and met Sam and then Linh is slowly revealed. By the time of her meeting with Linh, it becomes clear that her time in Vietnam is nearly up. But having been in the country for ten years, will she even be able to leave? If she does, will Linh go with her? If she doesn’t leave, will the increasingly dangerous situations in which she finds herself be the end of her?

The Lotus Eaters is the first novel by Tatjana Soli, yet the prose reads as though she is far more accomplished than that. Soli’s descriptions of Vietnam – the sights, the smells, the poverty and the violence – are so vivid that they leap off the page and it is hard to believe that she didn’t have first-hand experience of the war. Helen’s love for the country, despite all the horror, is palpable and expertly detailed. The descriptions of the war and poverty aside, Vietnam comes across as being a must visit country for its beauty, fascinating people and delicious food.

Unfortunately, for those who don’t like gore at least, the descriptions of the war and the many injuries caused are as vivid as the more attractive descriptions. Helen witnesses a number of violent deaths, which are deeply unpleasant to read about and probably won’t be to everyone’s taste. The story is ultimately a romance, but it is far from being all sweetness and light. It’s a love story against the background of war and violence and right up until the end, it is never entirely clear whether the love story part of the book is going to end happily or not.

The characterisation in The Lotus Eaters isn’t as in depth as the descriptions of the scenery. Although the story is told almost exclusively from Helen’s point of view, she never really develops as a character, even though the story spans ten years. She comes across as being very focused, someone who is willing to trample over others on her way up, and nothing that she really does dispels that. Ultimately, she seems to be a very distant character and not one for whom the reader has a great deal of sympathy.

“The Lotus Eaters is recommended, four stars out of five.”

If Helen is distant from the reader’s perspective, then Sam and Linh are even more so. This is partially because they are secondary characters, although short bursts of the story are told from their point of view. However, they never become more than characters on the page – there is no depth to them and it is hard to understand exactly why Helen feels about them the way that she does. Sam in particular is a hard character who is often hard and abrupt, for all his love for Vietnam and its people. Linh is a more caring person, but he keeps himself to himself and so it is hard to gain an understanding of him and his personality. It is certainly very difficult to understand why Helen is attracted to him and vice versa.

The story is told in a slightly odd way, because it begins when Helen and Linh are already a couple. It then skips back to when Helen first arrived in Vietnam as a naive photojournalist and describes her meeting and subsequent relationship with Sam. However, as a device to draw in the reader, it works well, because the reader immediately wonders how and why Helen ended up with Linh and exactly what happened to Sam in the process. Bearing in mind that it is hard to warm to the characters, this device is really necessary to attract the reader’s attention; without it, it probably would have been difficult to get past the first couple of chapters.

There reaches a point in The Lotus Eaters where it becomes very unclear exactly where the story is going – it all seems to be over and yet it keeps plodding on. Fortunately, this is only a very brief section before the action starts again and the ending turns out to be a very thrilling one. Soli keeps the reader on tenterhooks right up to the last page and it really is difficult to put the book down until the final conclusion has been drawn. It really is worth getting through the slightly less exciting chapters – of which there are only three or four – without giving up on the book.

If Tatjana Soli continues to write, then she almost certainly has a great future as a novelist. Her descriptions are excellent and are really evocative of the environment in which the characters exist. Hopefully, she will find a way of following through with her characters, making it easier to warm to them. Once she has got that combination right, her work will be amazing. As it is, she has already written a great book; it just doesn’t quite reach the heights it might otherwise have done. The Lotus Eaters is recommended, four stars out of five.
Advantages: Beautifully descriptive
Disadvantages: Weaker characterisation

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
Published by HarperCollins, Dec 2010, 400 pages.
With thanks to HarperCollins for a free review copy.

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Lotus Eaters, The
by Tatjana Soli

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Written by sunmeilan
sunmeilan

My background is varied. I studied Chinese at Durham University in the UK, Renmin University in Beijing and Nanjing University. I then lived in China for many years, before returning to the UK to study criminology at the London School of Economics, from where I have a Masters. I have published articles on drug treatment and the criminal justice system. Although I have now left this field, I do enjoy crime fiction and reviewing books from this genre. I also have a strong interest in Chinese modern fiction.

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