After high school Clements winds up a bit adrift in Hanoi, by herself because she’s fallen out with her best friend and travelling companion. It’s not immediately clear what the cause of the rift is (their disagreement is revealed later on) but Clements decides to stay on her own. An obvious outsider, she begins to learn the language, finds a job and gets to know the people she encounters.
During her travels she has a series of troubling sexual encounters with the men she meets. She is young and reckless and one of these relationships proves to be a drawn-out and harrowing experience.
Clements’ depictions of the places she visits are full of colour: everything from the clockwork of the markets in Hanoi through to the teetering mountainside hotels in Sa Pa and riding on a motorbike down a long highway at night as the rain pours down.
The story of her high school years occasionally makes you cringe. Not through any fault of the writing but simply because of the palpable unhappiness of a girl whose sense of identity largely derives from what other people think of her.
She describes her younger self as a watcher, “one to hang back and observe”. She’s scared of criticism and failure and is too eager to be liked by everyone, too needy, even with the mean girl whose friendship she covets, and the boy whose lacklustre toleration of her she thinks she deserves. These two characters, with their manipulative, on again/off again attention, are such familiar types they will fill you with rage.
Clements examines the classic, sometimes uncomfortable dynamic between two teenage girls who are best friends, but where one is dominated by the other. “We are taught to be accommodating,” she says. “We are not taught up to what point.” The puzzle of where to draw the line creates much of the tension of this book.
The Lotus Eaters questions how young women relate to their own sexuality. Parts of it can be hard to read, as she details her experiences of imbalances of power in both Australia and Vietnam. It makes you think about the dynamics of fear and control and the different forms of violence. Of what it’s like to be in situation where you thought it would be easier to do something you didn’t really want to do rather than to say no.
“All this time,” she says, “I’d thought that if I was nice enough, if I shaped my wants to what other people needed, then I could keep a measure of control.” Which isn’t true, of course, though it doesn’t stop any of us who feel or have felt like this.
Ultimately Clements learns to practise self-forgiveness. She knows, however, that this too is another journey. “It would be neat,” she acknowledges, “in a narrative sense, to say that what happened … gave me a timely realisation about my self-worth.” She’s right to say such realisations are rarely neat.