The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus Eaters cover

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2010. If it hadn’t won that prize I doubt if I would have picked the book up because the subject matter didn’t really appeal to me, but I ended up really enjoying this book which was quite a surprise to me.

The book begins on April, 28th 1975 with Helen Adams picking her way through the streets of Saigon. The long war is coming to an end. There’s a lot of looting going on in the centre of town, it’s time for her to leave the city and go home, but she wants to hang on and be the last photographer to leave, she’s sure there are still great photo opportunities for her.

Ten years earlier she had decided to go out to Vietnam to become the first female war photographer there, she was totally clueless. She wore suede high heels and only had an instamatic camera so had never even loaded film into a ‘real’ camera. She had been drawn to go to the war zone because her younger brother had been killed there, she wanted to find out how her brother had died if possible, but it was also partly because she had always been infuriated by the way she had been left out of things by her father as he took her brother out with him to do father/son bonding things, such as hunting. She felt she had some catching up to do.

The male photo journalists weren’t happy about her being there, nor were the combatants, but Helen hung on to Sam Darrow’s coat tails and learned the job from him. From Linh his assistant she learned Vietnamese, something that the others didn’t bother to do.

This is a love story of sorts although the obsession with getting good photos that tell a story and will be of interest to the folks back home as well as the editor of Life magazine becomes paramount. Like others before her Helen is loth to leave and go home to a mundane life, she’s become a bit of an adrenalin junkie despite her terror as she accompanies the soldiers on patrols. The love interests didn’t ring quite true for me, but that’s me nitpicking.

Despite the descriptions of violence and the horror of the war this is a really good read, very atmospheric. It’s the sort of book I would normally avoid, simply because the setting is in such a steaming hot country – daft I know but I prefer books set in cold countries – but I’m really glad that I read this one. It’s quite amazing to think that this was her first book. It is so much better than the last James Tait Black prize winner which I read (Personality by Andrew O’Hagan).

I was also impressed by the two pages of bibliography which Soli listed at the back, she certainly did her homework.

Highland River by Neil M. Gunn

Highland River cover

Highland River by Neil M. Gunn won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1937 and I’m trying to make my way through as many of the winners as possible. It’ll be a long haul as there are a lot of them.

This is just the third book by Gunn that I’ve read, I think so far The Silver Darlings is my favourite.

Highland River is set around the Dunbeath area of the Scottish Highlands.

It’s really the story of Gunn’s childhood. It was a hand to mouth existence and the story begins with Kenn being sent out in the dark of early morning to get water from the well situated near a pool. It’s freezing and Kenn slips and falls in the water, but in doing so he realises that a huge salmon has become trapped in the pool, and so begins a battle to catch it with his hands. This is an aspect of the book that reccurs time and time again, in fact too much for me, it might appeal to those who are interested in unusual fishing techniques.

The Scottish Highland childhood chapters are interspersed with chapters about Kenn and his brother’s experiences in the trenches of World War 1 and I would have been happier with the book if there had been more of those. Gunn never was involved in that war though so he probably felt he was better off sticking to writing about what he knew about. He was a customs officer/excise man from 1910 until he was able to earn enough from his writing to become a full time writer in 1937.

He was active politically and was a member of the National Party for Scotland part of which later became the Scottish National Party. He died in 1973.

As it happens, when we were travelling home from our recent trip to Orkney we stopped off at Dunbeath which is a very small place, but is in a beautiful area of Caithness. They’re proud of their ‘local hero; and have erected a statue of Kenn with his massive salmon, a scene from this book. The photo below is of the river that runs through Dunbeath, it’s called Dunbeath Water, and is presumably the Highland river from the title.

Dunbeath Water

There’s also this lovely statue of Kenn and his salmon, a scene from the book.
Kenn + Salmon

I also read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge and it’s one of my 20 Books of Summer.

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge

 Master George cover

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and that is printed on the cover, it was published in 1998. I read it because it actually won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1998, but that is not mentioned on the cover of the book, which I think is a real shame especially considering it is the oldest literary prize in Britain, but of course it’s a Scottish prize, based in Edinburgh University, and you know how London-centric everything seems to be nowadays.

You never know what you’re going to get with Beryl Bainbridge, but this one turned out to be historical fiction, set before and during the Crimean War. I enjoyed it but I think that I made a mistake in reading it at bedtime, as it deserved and needed concentration. The last parts of the book are pretty ghastly as you would expect from a brutal war setting, but the earlier parts of the book are about Georgie, a young man interested in photography, and some of the people who make up his family household.

George Hardy eventually becomes a surgeon and some of his household accompany him to the war. They all have close relationships with him and all helped him hide a secret from his mother, which creates a bond between them. Myrtle is his adoptive sister and she adores him, hero worships him, Pompey was picked up off the streets and now assists him with his photography and Dr Potter, is the family doctor who has an interest in geology and the new sciences.

The blurb on the back say:

‘A novella-sized miracle of passion and war’ Ruth Rendell

‘It is hard to think of anyone now writing who understand the human heart as Beryl Bainbridge does.’ The Times

It’s definitely worth reading, and out of interest I looked up what did win the Booker Prize in 1998 and it was Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, which I haven’t read, so I can’t compare it.