Two superb debut novels about the Vietnam War were published earlier this year. The first, Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, definitely deserves the wide readership that made it a New York Times bestseller and a library top-circulator. (As I write this, I see that there are 241 holds on 30 copies at the Seattle Public Library; 53 holds on 73 copies at the Cuyahoga County Library System; and 232 holds on 57 copies at the King County Library System, so those readers have a terrific reading experience in store.)
The other— far less well known, with lower sales numbers, and many fewer copies and fewer holds at libraries around the country— is Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters (St. Martin’s, 2010). And that’s a shame, because this is—not to mince words—a devastatingly awesome novel. It’s one of those books that I didn’t want to put down—I resented everything else that I needed to do in my life, because I didn’t want to stop reading it. In Greek mythology, the lotus-eaters were so addicted to the narcotic properties of the lotus plant that they were unable to live in the real world. The irony of Soli’s title is that what her characters become addicted to is the antithesis of narcotic bliss and lethargy, lassitude and dreaminess: it’s not sloth, a dream life, or being stoned that they crave, but rather the frightening narcotic of war and its attendant dangers. Without it coursing through their blood, the main characters in Soli’s novel are pretty much unable to function. The novel opens on a scene of chaos: the end (for the U.S.) of the Vietnam war in 1975, marked by American soldiers in helicopters departing Saigon from the roof of the American embassy, and thousands of South Vietnamese trying desperately to get aboard the choppers before Ho Chi Minh’s troops take over the city and the country. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, and her lover Linh, a Vietnamese photographer, are in that group trying to get back to the U.S. Through a long flashback, Soli describes the previous decade, which includes Helen coming to Vietnam to discover the circumstances of her brother’s death in the country, meeting Sam Darrow, the best known photojournalist of his day and his assistant, Linh, and her initial bewilderment at Darrow’s attitude toward his job before she herself becomes hooked on danger and fear’s adrenaline high. This is not a novel about politics, and it doesn’t attempt to be a history of the war. Instead, it’s about people caught up in events much larger than themselves who change in unpredictable ways.