In the final days of a falling Saigon,The Lotus Eaters unfolds the story of three remarkable photographers brought together under the impossible umbrella of war: Helen Adams, a once-naïve ingénue whose ambition conflicts with her desire over the course of the fighting; Linh, the mysterious Vietnamese man who loves her, but is torn between conflicting loyalties to his homeland and his heart; and Sam Darrow, a man addicted to the narcotic of violence, to his intoxicating affair with Helen and to the ever-increasing danger of his job. All three become transformed by the conflict they have risked everything to record.
Tatjana gives an overview of the book:
The city teetered in a dream state. Helen walked down the deserted street. The quiet was eerie. Time running out. A long-handled barber’s razor, cradled in the nest of its strop, lay on the ground, the blade’s metal grabbing the sun. Unable to resist, she leaned down to pick it up, afraid someone would split his foot open running across it. A crashing noise down the street distracted her — dogs overturning garbage cans — and she snatched blind at the razor. Drawing her hand back, a bright pinprick of blood swelled on her finger. She cursed at her stupidity and kicked the razor, strop and all, to the side of the road and hurried on.
The unnatural silence allowed Helen to hear the wailing of the girl. The child’s howl was high and breathless, defiant, rising, alone and forlorn against the buildings, threading its way through the air, a long, plaintive note spreading its complaint. Helen crossed the alley and went around a corner to see a small child of three or four, hard to tell with the ubiquitous malnourishment, standing against the padlocked doorway of a bar. Her face and hair drenched with the effort of her crying. She wore a dirty yellow cotton shirt sizes too large, bottom bare, no shoes. Dirt circled between her toes.
The pitiful scene begged a photo. Helen hesitated, hoping an adult would come out of a doorway to rescue the child. She only had days or hours left in-country. Breathless, the girl staggered a few steps forward to the curb, eyes flooded in tears, when a man on a bicycle flew around the corner, pedaling at a furious speed, clipping the curb and almost running her down. Helen lurched forward without thinking, grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her back, speaking quickly in fluent Vietnamese: “Little girl, where is mama?”
The child hardly looked at her, the small body wracked with sobs. Helen’s throat constricted. A mistake, stopping. A pact made to herself that at this late date she wouldn’t get involved. The street rolled away in each direction, empty. No woman approached them.
Tired, Helen knelt down so she was eyelevel to the child. In a headlong lunge, the girl wrapped both arms around Helen’s neck. Her cries quieted to soft cooing.
“What’s your name, honey?”
“Should I take you home? Home? To mama? Where do you live?”
Rested, the girl began to sob again with more energy, fresh tears.
No good deed goes unpunished. The camera bag pulled heavy and bulky. As she held the girl, walking up and down the street to flag attention, it knocked against her hip. She slipped the shoulder strap off and set it down on the ground, all the while talking under her breath to herself: What are you doing What are you doing? What are you doing? The child was surprisingly heavy, although Helen could feel ribs and the sharp, pinion-like bones of shoulder blades. The legs that wrapped vise-like around Helen’s waist were sticky, a strong scent of urine filling her nostrils.
A stab of impatience. “I’ve got to go, sweetie. Where is mama?”
She bounced the girl to quiet her and paced back and forth in front of the bar. Her mind wasn’t clear; why was she losing her precious hours, involving herself now, when she had passed hundreds of desperate children before? But she had heard this one’s cries so clearly. A sign? A sign she was losing it was more like it, Linh would say.
A young woman hurried across the intersection, glanced at Helen and the child, then looked away.
The orphanage was overflowing. Should she take the girl home with her? Once they abandoned this corner, she would be Helen’s responsibility. Could she take her out of the country with Linh? What had she been thinking to stop? Was it a trap? By whom? Was it a test? By what?
Tatjana Soli is a novelist and short story writer. Her bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, winner of the James Tait Black Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book, and finalist for the LA Times Book Award among other honors. Her stories have appeared...
"Set amid the twin infernos of Cambodia and Vietnam in the early 1970's, The Lotus Eaters draws the reader into a haunting world of war, betrayal, courage, obsession, and love. Tatjana Soli's spare, lucid...
“If you have wondered what it’s like to be a combat photographer and what kind of toll such brutal work exacts on the soul, you must read The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli’s beautiful and harrowing new novel....