It’s time for Book Review Club again; this time I’m reviewing Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay, published by Ballantine Books, 2012, and an Edgar finalist for Best First Novel by an American Author.
The author describes her book as “both an adventure novel and a time capsule.” The time period is 1925 and the setting is Southeast Asia, specifically Shanghai, Saigon and Cambodia, and the subject is archeological discovery and illicit art dealing.
In 1925 the international treasure-hunting scene is a man’s world, and no one understands this better than Irene Blum, who is passed over for a coveted museum curatorship because she is a woman. Seeking to restore her reputation, she sets off from Seattle in search of a temple believed to house the lost history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization. But her quest to make the greatest archaeological discovery of the century soon becomes a quest for her family’s secrets. Embracing the colorful and corrupt world of colonial Asia in the early 1900s, The Map of Lost Memories takes readers into a forgotten era where nothing is as it seems. As Irene travels through Shanghai’s lawless back streets and Saigon’s opium-filled lanes, she joins forces with a Communist temple robber and an intriguing nightclub owner with a complicated past. What they bring to light deep within the humidity-soaked Cambodian jungle does more than change history. It ultimately solves the mysteries of their own lives.
The main character, Irene Blum, is a young woman from Seattle who grew up in a museum where her father was the night watchman surrounded by artifacts from Angkor Wat. She grows up obsessed with the ancient Khmer civilization. As an adult, she works for the museum and becomes expert at finding lost treasures and negotiating purchases. Though she has no formal training, she expects to be made head of the museum when the current curator retires. However, she quits when she is passed over for a man with formal education and training.
About this time, her mentor, an old friend of her father named Henry Simms, a private collector who is dying, tells Irene about a lost Khmer temple and asks her to go to Asia to find it. A successful expedition would make her name in the field, so she agrees to go, but Mr. Simms isn’t telling her everything she needs to know. He does tell her to seek out Simone Merlin, a young woman who grew up in at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and is familiar with the area and the archeology. But Simone is a committed communist, as is her abusive husband Roger. First Irene must get Simone away from her husband.
This is a fabulous book, richly detailed, and is both an adventure story and a character study. Irene has to face situations she isn’t trained or prepared for, and do things she could never have imagined. How far will she go to feed her obsession? Will she and Simone be able to work together or will they be at cross purposes? What about the men in their lives? Simone’s husband and her former lover Louis, and Irene’s new love, Marc Rafferty, a club owner and adventurer. The action moves from Shangai to Saigon and then into the Cambodian jungle. I’d say more, but I don’t want to drop any spoilers. This is a journey each reader should take on her own.
It was obvious to me that the author had been in the area, just from the incredible description of the setting and the feel of the oppressive humidity. I waited until I’d finished to read the author’s comments on the Amazon page. It turns out her grandfather traveled in the area back in the 1930’s and told stories about Shanghai and the other places he’d seen. Like Irene, Ms. Fay grew up fascinated by Southeast Asia, and eventually lived in Vietnam for four years and visited Angkor Wat.
If you like Indiana Jones movies, you should enjoy this book. Recommended. (Dear FCC, I purchased the book from Amazon Kindle.)
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