The Lotus Eaters: A Novel (Reading Group Gold) Reprint Edition, Kindle Edition
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"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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The novel opens as the US troops are pulling out of Vietnam in 1975, and photojournalist Helen Adams is walking the streets of Saigon, feeling familiar and close to the city. She's been here over a decade, and is conflicted about leaving this now refugee town to go back to the states.
She walks to the apartment she shares with her lover and also photographer, Linh, a Vietnamese who has been injured. She is anxious to get him on the helicopter out of there, with the intention of joining him after she goes on one final shoot. However, she is eternally compelled by that one great shot, the photo that will secure her name in the history of war photographers. Her mentor and previous lover, Sam Darrow, had already done that, but, like Helen, was hooked to the place, the job, the dynamic of war photography.
Following the memorable scene after the Fall of Saigon, one that is canonized in the iconic image of South Vietnamese civilians desperately trying to secure a seat on one of the last American helicopters shuttling between Saigon rooftops and US navy ships off the coast of Vietnam (ahead of the arrival of the communist North-Vietnamese troops), the story starts at the beginning of Helen's life here, back in 1965. We follow her from the her complete innocence as a new photographer and survivor in a war-torn country; through the grisly action of capturing combat scenes on film; and in the inflamed and tender scenes of romance.
If I ever were to recommend one novel on the Vietnam War, this would be it. Unless you only want battle action and an all male cast--such as Matterhorn--I endorse this book as a poised and exquisite balance between love and war, and a love for the adrenaline-fueled action of war. As photographers, Helen, Sam, and Linh strive for the pictures that, in their individual quests, are a sort of anti-war document, an up close and personal edification of the fallout and consequences of what the US called a "skirmish." The inner conflicts of getting that award-winning shot subsumes the guilt and shame of potential exploitation and the desire to keep on following the next knell or knoll of death. What of their photography? Are they interpreters of violence? Are they, as Sam Darrow feared, making war "palatable"?
As Helen thought, "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 shot, they sat on the returning plane with a kind of postcoital shame, turning away from each other."
As a personal story, Soli beautifully braided, twisted, and integrated the photojournalists' addiction to war and their desperate kinds of love or lust, the difficult choices and bonds that form, bonds that may never work anywhere else but in the midst of battle scarred endurance. This is one of my favorite contemporary novels of all time. By the end of this visceral, emotionally electrifying novel, I forgot all thoughts of return to the real world. I wanted to stay with these characters. I was a lotus eater.
The story is both a war story and a love story. Helen loves first Sam Darrow and then, after his death, Linh, Darrow's assistant, a Vietnamese photographer with a shadowy past. As the novel progresses we see how Darrow and then Helen get so caught up in the war that they find it an obsession. It leaves scars on both of them. "The curse of photojournalism in a war was that a good picture necessitated the subject getting hurt or killed". How much can one witness without getting post-traumatic stress disorder or becoming immune to pain and suffering? The reader watches as Helen definitely suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder but continues on her mission to photograph every battle she can. As Darrow said, "Like an addict who had to keep upping the dose to maintain the same high, he found himself risking more and working harder for less return. . . .A steady loss of impact until violence became meaningless?"
It is interesting that "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'. The novel is very educational in that the reader learns about the North Vietnamese, the South Vietnamese, Cambodia and the United States and what drives them all to engage in this fruitless and horrendous war.
Helen evolves from a naive young woman to a seasoned photojournalist who is marginally accepted by the men but has access to all their resources. She gets her pictures on the cover of Life magazine and she is known as the first woman combat photographer of the war. Once Saigon falls to the north, she puts the injured Linh on a helicopter and returns to the city to see the war to its end. "The end had arrived with a sputter, and although she had prayed for an end to the evils of war, now that it had arrived she couldn't deny being strangely brokenhearted. Like a snake swallowing its own tail, war created an appetite that could be fed only on more war." 'At first the war is exciting, then it's proficiency and endurance' along with "a camaraderie in war, an urgency of connection impossible to duplicate in regular life. She felt more human when life was on the edge."
The other side of the war is the tenderness and poignancy that death and suffering bring. "The dead enter the living, burrowed through the skin, floated through the blood, to come at last to rest in the heart." However, like the lotus eaters in Homer's Odyssey, once anyone tastes the fruit of the plant, they lose any wish to go home. The war is the metaphor for the lotus fruit, a fruit that keeps one in place, forgetting all thoughts of home.
While I enjoyed this book, Helen never seemed particularly real to me. I couldn't see how a college dropout would just jump on a plane to Vietnam and know how to become a photojournalist. It seemed too much of a stretch. Darrow, I could understand, as well as Linh. The truth of it, however, is that I didn't connect deeply to any of the characters. Having been a teenager and young adult during the war, I saw many of my friends go to Vietnam. Some came back and some didn't. I was emotionally burnt out by this novel, given my background and having heard so much about the war previously. I felt like I was drowning at times. While this is an excellent book in many ways, I found it to be more a book about war than about people. The descriptions of the different battles were too intense and too descriptive for my taste.