Isn’t it great when ambivalence about a book shifts into genuine engagement? The shift from 1975 in chapter one back to 1963 in two and then ’65 in three annoyed but I’ve got over myself as the characters have filled out.
Helen Adams’ arrival in Vietnam as a war photographer in ‘63 is Bambi-like where she makes all the mistakes the men cynically expect of a woman. But slowly she finds her way and earns the respect of even battle-hardened veterans.
She has the fearless gene needed in her line of work that allows her to carry on taking photos as a man is summarily executed, only for the executioner to realize he’s been caught on camera. Helen carries on ‘shooting’ even as he points his gun right into her lens. Fortunately, she has enough presence of mind to know that if she comes out from behind the camera he will kill her, which gives the US soldiers she’s accompanying time to step in and defuse the situation.
Watching The Killing Fields again, nearly 30 years since I last saw it, was a salutary experience. The parallels were poignant - although it’s Cambodia rather than Vietnam; Sidney Schanberg the lead with Dith Pran as his sidekick – as America examines its conscience for its imperial/imperious stance in the mid-20th century. I’m only half way through the book so there’s time for it to diverge – although chapter one has laid certain clues.
As for Ms Soli, her Author’s Notes tucked away at the end of the book still don’t reveal whether she has visited the country but the extensive general bibliography suggests a level of obsession bordering on clinical. And if she hasn’t been to Vietnam then I think I’m even more impressed! Better still, The Lotus Eaters is her debut and I can only hope she hasn’t poured everything into it as I’m already looking forward to her next book, The Forgetting Tree, which is due to be published later this year in America.