In her stunningly powerful debut novel, Tatjana Soli chronicles a young female photojournalist’s 10-year odyssey through love and war. Soli’s Vietnam is by turns tender and terrifying, casting a spell of both beauty and horror on her protagonist, Helen Adams, which doesn’t let go until the book’s transcendently agonizing climax. I ached to know Helen’s fate. I know other readers will as well.
Helen arrives in the war-ravaged country in 1965, a naïve but determined California girl fresh from college, apparently searching for answers about her soldier brother’s death—but really looking for something inside herself that she cannot define. Thrusting herself into combat before she has learned to work a camera properly, she embarks on what begins as a test of courage and eventually becomes an addiction to the war. Growing attuned to the dreamlike but nightmarish qualities of her new life, Helen would rather be in Vietnam than anywhere else. Dense as the jungle, Soli’s prose is ever-changing, revealing itself layer by layer and masterfully evoking Helen’s heightened senses with poetic descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells and tactile experiences of Saigon, rural village life and deadly military operations on land and in the air. But it also conveys Helen’s feeling of restless, fractured movement. Psychologically, Helen cannot tell whether she is running toward something or away—or in camouflaged circles.
Guideposts in her kaleidoscopic world are two men: Sam Darrow, a legendary, married war photographer whose search for unattainable answers and thirst for risky missions predate and mirror Helen’s; and Linh, a Vietnamese soldier-turned-photographer’s assistant who has lost all he loves to the war. They both shape her life irrevocably, making her behold her nearly unbearable weaknesses but also intensifying her strengths. But neither can make her see exactly when to stop pushing for the answer that eludes her—when will she be finished with the war? With Vietnam? Even as she and Linh struggle through the streets of Saigon, hoping to escape with their lives during the city’s fall, Helen does not know the answer. But Soli’s incredibly moving work comes to an expertly crafted conclusion, and her novel should serve as a fitting tribute to the people of Vietnam, the land itself, the soldiers who fought there and those individuals who seek to forever capture war’s horrifying—and edifying—images.
Sheri Bodoh writes from Eldridge, Iowa.