The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
Ten years in the life of a woman who arrives in Vietnam in 1965 as a middling photographer and a war tourist are described with sensitivity and care. Soli respects her characters, even the jerks, the ruined, and the naïve. She doesn't avoid the grisly aspects of the steaming jungle war or the moments of unexpected beauty. The scope and futility of the invaders' mission and the resilience employed by the Vietnamese to survive serve as the backdrop to what is essentially a coming of age tale.
The story starts at the end--at the end of the war as the US troops are pulling out of Saigon and reporters are being sent away for their own protection, and also at the end of Helen Adams' ten years in-country. We see Helen and her injured lover, fellow photographer Linh, boarding a plane to get him to safety. Just before take off, she slips off the transport plane and goes back to try to take the photograph that will make her the best female war photographer ever.
Flashback to Helen Adams, 32 years old, arriving in Vietnam after her brother's death there. She learns quickly that reporting on war is a boys' club. A war-weary Pulitzer Prize winning photographer named Sam Darrow takes her on her first, not so successful mission. Her personal growth is uneven and realistic. Soli describes Helen's war experiences and her relationships with the two men, Darrow and Linh, in language so artfully beautiful that the book takes on an almost film noir feel.
The title, The Lotus Eaters, comes from Homer. In The Odyssey, Odysseus's crew who ate the lotuses offered by the local people no longer cared what would happen to them and didn't want to leave the island. The obvious reference is to the journalists who get sucked into war reporting and can no longer imagine life without the horror and thrill of battle. The less obvious reference is what happens to readers of this book-even reluctant ones-it will grab you and not let you go. It's a fabulous read.