Named for the Greek myth about a race of people who indulge in hedonism rather than dealing with the realities of life, Emily Clements’ memoir follows two time lines: the author throughout adolescence, and the author, aged 19, living in Vietnam, having just fled from her toxic best friend. The earlier memories show a girl desperate for social approval, self-conscious about body image and hungry for male attention – even when it’s interlaced with danger or disquiet. The impact of Clements’ experiences as a girl mirror her life in Vietnam where, after years of conditioning, she sees her body as a powerful tool that can easily betray her – and finds herself in a terrifying situation that is the catalyst for an empowering personal shift.
Clements is a beautiful writer – her descriptions of the bucolic Vietnamese countryside and the bustling streets of Hanoi are lush with detail, and she’s a deft hand at building suspense and intrigue. The sharpness of her language hits especially during the more disturbing scenes of sexual trauma, as she describes the conflicting emotions she experiences and the complexity of desire. While this speaks powerfully to difficult, unresolved societal questions about gender relations, sex and consent, some of the repetition in the book could perhaps have been cut without losing the potency of these ideas.
As a Western traveller to Vietnam, Clements addresses some of the implications of her whiteness, but there’s no sense of any deep understanding of the culture – it often feels as though Vietnam and its people, depicted largely as emotionally stunted, are storytelling props. Clements paints a universal picture of toxic masculinity, but fails to contextualise it culturally. There’s barely any mention of Vietnam’s troubling history, much of which is steeped in its own trauma. This lack of cultural awareness, and the centring of white womanhood, evokes a jarring, uncomfortable sense of colonialism.
With The Lotus Eaters, Clements has woven a compelling narrative that offers insights into the consequences of gendered societal pressure – but there’s a nagging feeling of an unexplored privilege that renders the picture incomplete.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
Hardie Grant, 320pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 8, 2020 as "Emily Clements, The Lotus Eaters".
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