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War through a camera lens
     
  Janet Maslin  
  THE LOTUS EATERS
By Tatjana Soli
389 pages. St. Martin's Press. $24.99.

TATAJANA SOLI'S haunting debut novel begins where it ought to end. In this quietly mesmerizing book about journalists covering the war in Vietnam, the first glimpses of the place are the most familiar. The year is 1975. Americans are in a state of panic as North Vietnamese forces prepare to occupy Saigon. The looters, the desperate efforts to escape this war zone, the mobs surrounding the United States Embassy, the overcrowded helicopters struggling to rise above the chaos: these images seem to introduce Ms. Soli's readers to a story they already know.

Her protagonist is Helen Adams, a war photographer. As Helen makes her way toward the embassy with a wounded Vietnamese man named Linh, she surveys the ruins of her own wartime experience. A friend is missing, and that friend's shop has been looted. Refugees are everywhere. And Sam Darrow, the charismatic, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has meant everything to Helen, is long gone. He died at some point in Helen's tumultuous Vietnam tenure.

Ms. Soli thus creates a serious challenge for her narrative. How is she to breathe life into a book that has already answered the most pertinent questions about its characters? Her extremely successful way of surmounting this obstacle is to lead readers into the naïve, unformed mind of the newly arrived Helen, who, way back in 1965, barely understood her talents or her professional raison d'être. "The Lotus Eaters" expands along with her as she grows into her expert photojournalist's role.

This quick shift in time frames proves to be much more seductive than a simple introduction to the older, tougher Helen would be. How does this yeoman photographer from California start out as a freelance (she eventually lands a job with Life magazine) and learn what war reporting is all about? To begin with, she takes a terrible ribbing from the men already entrenched in this work, men who like calling her Sweetheart and Prom Queen and treat her as the butt of disparaging wisecracks. ("So now the girls are coming. Can't be much of a war after all.") Her initiation rites include being exposed to every hoary cliché imaginable about seasoned war reporters who thrive on witnessing bloodshed in countries not their own.

Sometimes, in this otherwise tough and lyrical book, those ideas can be expressed a bit clumsily. "We're in the business of war," one pro tells Helen. "The cool thing for us is that when this one's done, there's always another one -- Middle East, Africa, Cambodia, Laos, Suez, Congo, Lebanon, Algeria. The war doesn't ever have to end for us."

The speaker is none other than dashing Sam Darrow, who is, according to one of his sardonic colleagues, "more commonly known as Mr. Vietnam." Sam turns out to be irresistible. Ms. Soli is somehow able to set off sparks between two photographers, the neophyte Helen and the seasoned, much-admired and very married Sam, without remotely suggesting that they are not on an equal footing. "Perhaps at long last he had met his match in female form?" Sam wonders about their nascent love affair. He has, and he has also met a woman who will emerge after much hard-won work experience as his professional equal.

If it sounds as if a love story is the central element in "The Lotus Eaters" (which takes its title from those characters in "The Odyssey" who succumb to the allure of honeyed fruit), Ms. Soli's book is sturdier than that. Its object lessons in how Helen learns to refine her wartime photography are succinct and powerful. By exposing its readers to the violence of war only gradually and sparingly, the novel becomes all the more effective. Helen's photograph of a harmless-looking old man's sudden execution offers an especially indelible image. So does her witnessing of one rebellious soldier's way of taking his fate into his own hands. And her efforts, with Sam, to help a maimed Vietnamese child backfire in ways both terrible and illuminating.

Helen's story has an obvious demarcation point. First there is Sam; then there isn't. She moves on to an intimacy with the complicated, subtle Linh, who worked as Sam's assistant but had many earlier experiences about which Helen learns during their solace-providing union. Each of them grows and changes in ways that give "The Lotus Eaters" dramatic impact even when its characters become hardened and battle-weary.

Ms. Soli has done prodigious research about the Vietnam War, particularly about the role of female war photographers, and so is able to imbue an otherwise deeply romantic book with a strong sense of history. She artfully uses Helen's autodidactic approach to photography as a way of raising questions that her readers need to answer too. What is a war photographer's mission? The book suggests that the job involves developing both a discerning eye (Sam is said to have birdlike movements, as if they allow him to look at things from many angles at once) and an analytic understanding of what the camera records.

Helen's experience peaks when she has mastered these aspects of the job. It becomes irrevocably altered when she senses the vulturelike attitude of journalists who flock to the site of a lost war for reasons of naked professional ambition. By the end of the story -- in ways that bring to mind the feverishness of the Iraqi war film "The Hurt Locker," with its very different locations, job descriptions and wartime imperatives -- she has been utterly transformed. She is no longer a witness to history. As Ms. Soli makes her readers understand very viscerally, Helen has become part of the history that she set out to record. (Courtesy: The New York Times)
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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