by Tatjana Soli
My goodness I love this book so much. It’s a historical fiction novel about a female photographer in Vietnam during the war. As much as I’ve read about World War I and II I know very little about that war. Soli paints an intense picture of the horror of battle and the beauty of the country. The novel is full of beautifully drawn characters trying to come to terms with the contradiction of reporting what’s happening and the inevitability of becoming part of the story of the war.
At first you think the book is a love story, but the story that unfolds is not the one you’re expecting. We begin at the end and then trace our way back to the beginning to better understand the characters of Helen and Linh. Structuring the novel in this way makes the whole thing more powerful. Seeing the long journey that our main characters take to get to each other is just enthralling.
Yes it's a love story, but it's also story of loss and grief and coping with the trauma of war and the return to the banality of civilian life. It’s about the complicated nature of war and the adrenalin rush that comes from being in danger. It’s about the inevitable impact an invading nation has on the society it’s attempting to “save” Helen’s conflicting feelings about getting the perfect shot and exploiting the people felt so real and relatable. It’s something that all journalists in extreme situations must come to tussle with. She struggles with the potent mix of fear and excitement as she becomes entrenched in the world of Vietnam.
**SPOILER**The book has two very complex love stories. Usually when that happens it’s difficult to make the reader connect with both without making one feel unimportant. I felt like the author did a wonderful job with that. She included a crucial time period when Helen is back in the states with neither man. When she returns to Vietnam and reconnects with Lihn while he is helping her recover from her wounds their relationship feels very natural.
There is also a stark difference between her relationship with Darrow and the relationship with Linh. Darrow doesn’t coddle her, he challenges her. Linh tries to protect her, not because he sees her as incapable or weak, but because he’s already lost the woman he loved and he doesn’t want it to happen again.
BOTTOM LINE: This novel, the writing, the characters, the story, was all just gorgeous. I was completely enraptured by the way it evoked the scenes of a foreign war zone and the people affected by it so vividly. The end did feel a bit rushed, like it deviated from the feel of the rest of the book, but it didn’t bother me too much and it certainly didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book overall.
“The possibility of time going on, her memories growing dim, the photographs of the battles turning from life into history, terrified her.”
“She thought of the rolls of film in the car, the images cradled in emulsion, areas of darkness and light like the beginnings of the universe.”
Pairing Books with Movies: The Year of Living Dangerously and Empire of the Sun, the first is another great look at journalists in the midst of war. The second gives us a picture of the conditions of an occupied country and the people caught in the midst of the chaos.