I finished Tajana Soli’s excellent literary debut The Lotus Eaters during my trip to North Carolina a few weeks ago. It’s a great place to read and the year previous I used my time there to tackle Denis Johnson’s National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke. The two novels turned out to be interesting male/female counterparts, re-telling the story of the Vietnam war from very distinct vantage points. Soli’s book focuses on a group of war photographers, in particular Helen Adams, a 32 year old woman who volunteered for the assignment after her brother was killed in combat there and Sam Darrow a heroic figure known for braving and surviving the dangers of war in order to get the perfect picture. Darrow is a kind of Don Draper character whose resume, good looks and confidence make him attractive to men and women alike but never calm his inner demons. He is a man who changed his name to fit the job and decided to photograph wars in part to escape his new wife and son, a family he feels little connection to. He and Helen quickly become lovers and he teaches her how to be more than just a “war tourist.” The third piece of this literary triangle is Linh, a Vietnamese poet and playwright who is forced to be a soldier and later an assistant, translator, friend and lover to Darrow and Helen. Through Helen, and her own detailed and insightful writing, Soli gives the book a unique female perspective however she uses the characters of Linh and Darrow to help fill out the picture with two very different masculine reactions to the war. The book is so incredibly vivid you could be easily convinced that the majority of the book’s scenes are simply being retold from actual events. Soli is also able to maintain the delicate balance of an objective point of view, painting the war simply as it is and reserving judgment except through the reactions and dialogue of her characters. The Lotus Eaters is a high-brow page turner, telling a very engaging story while also offering readers a bounty of literary rewards. Highly recommended.

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