The perfect title. As readers, we give it little thought. By the time we see a book in its finished state, it’s a done deal. We consider its cover, the heft in our hands as we ponder the accolades on the back jacket or peruse the synopsis on the inside flap (I don’t know what e-reading sorts do – don’t you miss the feel of a book, the whisper and scent of paper and ink? Sigh.). At any rate, the right title is perhaps the most critical and taken-for-granted aspect of a book.
But the perfect title will be more than a quote or an image from the book it fronts. It will carry a theme or act as a metaphor to summarize in a handful of words the book’s core. Such titles seem as if the book was written around them.
And so it is with The Lotus Eaters. As depicted in Homer’s The Odyssey, the Lotus Eaters were inhabitants of an island deep in the southern Mediterranean who ate from a native lotus, becoming indolent and apathetic - drugged by the flower’s narcotic. Odysseus’s sailors
“…went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars."
It is an image used time and again by novelists, from James Joyce to Edith Wharton, and serves as the ideal metaphor for Tatjana Soli's debut novel The Lotus Eaters.
In Soli’s gorgeous, fluid and haunting novel, the seductive narcotic is war. When war mixes with ambition, desire and an exotic locale, it becomes an elixir custom-made to slake the thirst for adventure.
This novel expresses more clearly than any I can think of the allure of the war experience and the shame and confusion that accompanies the attraction. The story opens in April, 1975 as Saigon is overrun by the North Vietnamese Army, signaling the end of the war in Vietnam. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, is torn between getting herself and her lover onto a chopper and out of the madness and her desire to capture this story of her lifetime.
Helen makes her decision and through that decision the reader is taken back ten years, to the start of Helen’s personal and professional journey through Vietnam. The Lotus Eaters is told principally from the perspective of Helen, but we also read through the voices of Linh, a Vietnamese photojournalist, and Sam Darrow, a celebrated, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Both men become Helen's mentors and the focus of her passions.
Helen’s ambition to excel as a female photojournalist pushes her past the machismo of her fellow journalists, the barriers erected by the military against allowing women near the front, the horror of witnessing death and mutilation, the impossible fight against nature in the tropics and mountains of Southeast Asia, and her loneliness and fear, until all of these become the very source of her ambivalent addiction to recording the war in Vietnam. Vietnam becomes home. She learns its language, the rhythms of its seasons; its very scents and shadows become ingrained in her spirit.
The Lotus Eaters shows us the upside-down world of the wartime experience and how living on the edge heightens each emotion. Passion, anger, fear, joy intensify until they overshadow memories of “normal.” Helen even tries to return home, spending several weeks in the healing beauty of the California coast, but the pull of the Lotus is too strong. She returns to Vietnam, to assume her place at the front lines of the war.
Tatjana Soli’s writing is as lush and vivid as her setting. She can be heavy-handed with the metaphors, as if she’s trying too hard to bring you into this overgrown, overripe world, but this is easily forgiven. Her characters are complete, the story is compelling and the writer’s voice is strong and unique. The novel itself became a Lotus that I reluctantly set aside each day and was bereft when it came to an end.
Rarely do we see war’s front lines through the eyes of a woman; rarer still is ambivalence so richly presented without judgment or conclusion. An outstanding read.