A woman in a war, amid the damage

By Carmela Ciuraru
Globe Correspondent / March 30, 2010

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If it’s possible to judge a novel by its first few lines, then “The Lotus Eaters,’’ Tatjana Soli’s fiction debut, shows great promise right from the start: “The city teetered in a dream state. Helen walked down the deserted street. The quiet was eerie. Time running out.’’

In these staccato lines, Soli conveys the frantic circumstances faced by her gritty protagonist, Helen Adams, a US photojournalist who has spent 12 years in Vietnam. The story begins in April 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, as Helen races through the city’s streets, desperate to make her way toward the American Embassy.

The narrative goes back in time to reveal not only Helen’s experiences of the devastation of war, but her struggles in love, as she chooses between two men. In truth, the romantic subplot doesn’t add much to the story; it’s Helen’s addiction to war that makes her such a compelling figure.

“One stayed at first for glory, then excitement, then later it was pure endurance and proficiency; one couldn’t imagine doing anything else,’’ Soli writes. “But there was something else, hard to put her finger on — one felt a camaraderie in war, an urgency of connection impossible to duplicate in regular life. She felt more human when life was on the edge.’’

Anyone who has seen Kathryn’s Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film, “The Hurt Locker,’’ understands that the obsession with violence and risk, at least for a certain personality type, is hard to shake. That Soli’s story explores this mindset from a woman’s perspective (and a journalist, not a soldier) adds interesting and unexpected layers.

Helen is a damaged woman running away from her own life. Her brother Michael was killed in the war, and she was drawn to the region partly to make sense of his death. Yet even after the fall of Saigon, she feels no peace and is not ready to leave. “She had always assumed that her life would end inside the war, that the war itself would be her eternal present,’’ Soli writes. “The possibility of time going on, her memories growing dim, the photographs of the battles turning from life into history terrified her.’’

Helen first falls in love with Sam Darrow, a famous (and married) photojournalist she admires, and then with his assistant, Linh, a Vietnamese former soldier who grapples with his own troubled past. Both relationships prove wrenching in very different ways, and both involve loss and grief.

Soli is at her best in conveying the day-to-day mix of adventure, tedium, and violence in wartime. Her descriptions are visceral, almost cinematic: “They waded through greenish gray paddy water the temperature of blood.’’ And she captures the camaraderie and tension among soldiers in a way that seems authentic.

Although Helen witnesses harrowing scenes, such as a Vietnamese man standing close to an explosion, “an icicle-shaped piece of shrapnel coming out of his cheek’’ — her camera offers a means of distance and safety. She cultivates detachment to mask her terror. When she takes a soldier’s picture and he dies minutes later, she just keeps moving. “The rage that filled her felt good, weighted her like a good meal or a strong drink, felt better than fear,’’ Soli writes. “The rage filled her so nothing else could get in.’’

The author explores Helen’s psyche with startling clarity, and portrays the chaotic war raging around her with great attention to seemingly minor details. The real heartbreak in “The Lotus Eaters’’ is found in subtle, unexpected moments: “I’m hoping you are strong,’’ Linh tells Helen soon after meeting her. “I am thinking this is going to be a very long war.’’

Carmela Ciuraru has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

THE LOTUS EATERS: A Novel By Tatjana Soli St. Martin’s Press, 389 pp., $24.99