General Fiction Tatjana Soli The Lotus Eaters

ISBN 13: 9780007364206

The Lotus Eaters

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9780007364206: The Lotus Eaters

It's 1975, and the North Vietnamese army is poised to roll into Saigon. As the city falls into chaos, two lovers make their way across the city to escape to a new life. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, must take leave of a devastated country she has come to love. Nguyen Pran Linh, the man who loves her, must deal with his own conflicted loyalties. As they race through the streets, they play out a drama of love and betrayal that began twelve years before. Their mentor, the larger-than-life war correspondent Sam Darrow, was once Helen's infuriating lover and fiercest competitor, as well as Linh's secret keeper, protector, and truest friend. As the sun sets on their life in Saigon, Helen and Linh struggle against both their inner demons and the ghosts of the past, illuminating the horrors of war, the dangers of obsession, and the redemptive power of love.

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About the Author:

TATJANA SOLI, born in Salzburg, Austria, and a graduate of Stanford, is an American novelist and short story writer. Her stories have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Confrontation; Gulf Coast; Other Voices; Nimrod; Third Coast; Carolina Quarterly; Sonora Review; and North Dakota Quarterly. She has twice been listed in the 100 Distinguished Stories in Best American Short Stories and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She has earned scholarships to Sewanee Writers' Conference and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

THE LOTUS EATERS (ONE: The Fall)

April 28, 1975

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 blindly at the razor. Drawing her hand back, she saw a bright pinprick of blood swelling 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 unrelenting malnourishment, standing against the padlocked doorway of a bar. Her face and hair were 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 had only 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 at eye level 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?"

No answer.

"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, pinionlike bones of shoulder blades. The legs that wrapped viselike 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. 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?

Helen stroked the girl's hair, irritated. She had a heart-shaped face, ears like perfect small shells. A bath and a nice dress would make her quite lovely.

Ten, fifteen minutes passed. The idea of this being a sign seemed more stupid by the minute. Not a soul came, nothing except the tinny, popping sound of guns far away. Helen toyed with the idea of putting the girl back down. Surely the family was close by, was searching for her. No harm done in keeping the girl company for a few minutes. Not her responsibility, after all. When she began to kneel to deposit her back on the ground, the girl's arms tightened to a choke hold around her neck, and Helen, resigned, strained back up. All wrong; a terrible mistake. A proof that she was failing. Linh would be worrying by now, might even try to go out to find her.

Helen bent and fished for the strap of her camera bag, putting it on the other shoulder to balance the weight. Maybe it was a sign. Insane, but what else could she do but take the child with her?

Halfway down the street, a woman's voice yelled from behind them. Helen turned to see a plain, moonfaced woman with thin, cracked lips stride toward them.

"Are you her mother?" Helen asked, guilt welling up. "I wasn't trying to take her--"

The woman yanked the girl out of Helen's arms, eyes pinched hard. The girl whimpered as the mother swatted her on the leg and scolded her.

"She couldn't tell me where she lived," Helen said.

But the mother had already turned without another glance and stalked away. The girl looked over the mother's shoulder, dark eyes expressionless. In a few more steps, they disappeared around the corner.

For the briefest moment Helen felt wronged, missed the weight on her hip and the sticky legs, but then the feeling was gone. How had the mother been so neglectful anyway? It rankled that she had not been thanked or even acknowledged for her effort. But with the shedding of that temporary burden, the old excitement buoyed up in her again. The possibility of the girl disappeared into the past. She'd better pull herself together. She picked up her bag, checked her watch, and ran.

On a normal day the activity in the streets so filled her eye that she hardly knew where to turn, torn whether to focus her camera on the intricate tableaus of open-air barbers on the sidewalk cutting their customers' hair, or tea vendors sweating over their fires and flame-blackened pots, or ink-haired boys selling everything from noodles to live chickens to cigarettes, or old men with whisk beards as peaceful as Buddhas playing their endless games of co tuong. And, too, there was the endless flotsam and jetsam of the war: beggars and amputees thronging everyplace where foreigners were likely to drop money.

But today streets were vacant, the broken windows and smashed doors like gouged-out features of a face once familiar. The people gone, or rather hidden, the streets deformed by their absence.

Helen's Saigon had always been about selling--chickens, information, or lovely young women, it didn't matter. It had once been called the Pearl of the Orient, but by people who had not been there in a very long time. Saigon had never been Paris, but now it was a garrison town, unlovely, a stinking refugee shantyville filled with the angry, the betrayed, the dispossessed, but she had made it her home, and she couldn't bear that soon she would have to leave.

Closer to the center of town, there was activity. Gangs of looters ranged through the city like gusts of wind, citizens and defeated soldiers who now in their despair became outlaws, breaking into stores they had walked past every day for years, stores whose goods they coveted.

Helen hurried, sucking on the drop of blood at her fingertip, but couldn't help her excitement, stopping to look, framing the composition in her mind's eye: teenage boys, some in jeans, some in rags, breaking a plate-glass window; a crowd inside a ransacked grocery, gorging themselves on crates of guava and jackfruit; a young girl with pink juice running down her face and onto her white blouse. It had always fascinated her--what happens when things break down, what are the basic units of life?

Hours late. Helen walked faster, touching the letters in the top of her bag, letters that she had wasted the whole morning begging for, that undid the last bit of her foolishness, her wanting to stay for the handover. She hoped that Linh would have taken his antibiotic and morphine in her absence but guessed he had not. His little rebellion against her. He had forgiven her and forgiven her again, but now he was drawing a line.

At the central market, unable to stop herself, she held up the camera to her eye, shooting off a quick series--a group of men arguing, then carrying away sacks of polished rice, bolts of cloth, electric fans, transistor radios, televisions, tape players, wristwatches, and carton after carton of French cognac and American cigarettes. She was so broke she could have used a few of the watches herself to resell stateside.

Wind blew from the east, a tired, rancid breath carrying across the city the smells of rotting garbage and unburied corpses. The rumbling to the north might have been the prelude to a rainstorm, but the Saigonese knew it was the thunder of artillery, rockets, and mortar rounds from the approaching Communist armies. Her brain hot and buzzing, all she could think was, What will happen next?

The looters, figuring they would probably be dead within hours, were careless. They fought over goods in the stores, then minutes later dropped them in the street outside as they decided to go elsewhere for better stuff. Even the want-stricken poor seemed to realize: What good is a gold watch on a corpse?

Helen walked through the torn streets unharmed as if she weren't a foreigner, a woman; instead she moved through the city with the confidence of one who belonged. Ten years before, she had been dubbed Helen of Saigon by the men journalists. She had laughed, the only woman from home the men had seen in too long. But now she did belong to the ravaged city--her frame grown gaunt, her shoulders hunched from tiredness, the bone-sharp jawline that had lost the padded baby fat of pretty, her blue gaze dark and inward.

Ten years...

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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers, United Kingdom, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. `A tremendously evocative debut, a love story set in the hallucinatory atmosphere of war, described in translucent, fever-dream prose. Janice Y. K. Lee, author of the bestselling `The Piano Teacher Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, 2011As the fall of Saigon begins in 1975, two lovers make their way through the streets, desperately trying to catch one of the last planes out. Helen Adams, a photojournalist, must leave behind a war she has become addicted to and a devastated country she loves. Linh, her lover, must grapple with his own conflicting loyalties to the woman from whom he can t bear to be parted, and his country.Betrayal and self-sacrifice follows, echoing the pattern of their relationship over the war-torn years, beginning in the splendour of Angkor Wat, with jaded, cynical, larger-than-life war correspondent Sam Darrow, Helen s greatest love and fiercest competitor, driven by demons she can only hope to vanquish.Spurred on by the need to get the truth of the war out to an international audience, and the immense personal cost this carries, Sam and Helen s passionate and all-consuming love is tested to the limit. This mesmerising novel carries resonance across contemporary wars with questions of love and heart-breaking betrayal interwoven with the conflict. Bookseller Inventory # AA89780007364206

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