The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay (Ballantine Books; 326 pages; $26).
When author and former bookseller Kim Fay was a little girl, she became fascinated with Southeast Asia. Her grandfather played a significant role in her growing obsession. He was a sailor in the Orient in the 1930s and told Fay stories about his life. Together, they would study photographs from that era; Fay was entranced.
After graduating from college, Fay traveled to Asia for the first time and promptly fell in love. Everything about the region heightened her senses and made her feel alive. Later, she moved to Vietnam and learned of a French couple, Andre and Clara Malraux, who looted a Cambodian temple in the 1920s to raise funds for the Communists. Just like that, Fay had an idea for a story. Thus, The Map of Lost Memories was born.
Part adventure (think Indiana Jones, but with a female lead), part quest, part mystery, The Map of Lost Memories is passionate, fast-paced, absorbing, and full of plot twists. The lush, green vegetation of Cambodia and the rhythms, habits, and culture of the country come to life. This reviewer felt like she had been transported into the story herself.
Like Fay, Irene Blum grew up on stories of Southeast Asia. Her mother, in fact, was kidnapped in Manila when she was pregnant with Irene. She died when Irene was little. After her death, it was just Irene, her father, and the mysterious Mr. Simms, a wealthy friend of the family.
In 1925, Irene is devastated when she is passed over for a job she has dreamt of for a long time: that of curator at the Brooke Museum in Seattle. The museum has been part of Irene for as long as she can remember. Her father worked there as janitor until his recent death. The institution has earned a prestigious reputation in art and archaeological circles, but only because of Irene’s hard work and fastidiousness in acquiring priceless artifacts, many of which were illegally obtained. She is passed over, though, in favor of a man, despite all she has done for the museum.
Understandably, Irene quits in a fury. Mr. Simms offers Irene the adventure of a lifetime instead. He gives her a rare map that supposedly leads to a set of copper scrolls narrating the history of the ancient Khmer civilization of Cambodia. This history was thought to be lost. Irene cannot resist, especially when she reads the 1825 journal of an American preacher who was part of an expedition that first found the scrolls.
Irene sets off on her journey. I can just hear the Indiana Jones music. I can see the map overlaid on the screen showing movie watchers exactly where Dr. Jones was traveling to next.
For Irene, the journey will not be easy. Then again, no quest is ever easy. Fay knows just the right obstacles to put in Irene’s way. Everyone who comes to Southeast Asia, Irene is told, “has something to hide.” What an apt phrase. Irene herself plans on stealing the scrolls and bringing them back to the United States and back to Mr. Simms. Discovering the lost history of the Khmer will finally mean Irene is “someone” in art and archaeological circles. Museums will beg her to be their curators, Irene thinks. Fay paints Irene as calculating and driven, qualities she would be expected to have after being passed over for the coveted curator spot. It quickly becomes apparent that Irene will do anything, anything, to get her hands on those scrolls.
Yet, Irene cannot accomplish this gargantuan task on her own. She needs help. Fay introduces two minor, yet very important, characters into the story. The first is a renowned temple robber and Communist, much like the real Clara Malraux, named Simone. The second is Marc, an elusive Shanghai nightclub owner who deals in information. Like Irene, these two also have “something to hide.”
The Map of Lost Memories is not the typical “Westerner in the Orient” type of story. Most of those tales featured a Western man as the protagonist. Fay gives us a story in which a Western woman travels to the Orient, a strong American female who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it. One of the helper characters is also a woman, a female who makes a lot of men quake in their boots.
Colonialism is a recurrent theme in The Map of Lost Memories. Simone believes a communist revolution is necessary in Cambodia. Only then, can the Cambodians govern themselves and restore their pride. Of course, in the early 1970s, communism and revolution in the form of the Khmer Rouge hit Cambodia hard. Countless lives were lost. Horrible atrocities were committed. Interestingly, Irene seems to think the Cambodians unworthy of the scrolls, ignorant of their history. Irene, though, cannot be faulted. She is a product of her time, an era when colonialism still flourished in this region.
Perhaps Clothilde, Mr. Simms’ Cambodian servant, says it best: “Idealists! You’re certain you know what’s best for the natives. You think there’s nothing more romantic than living in a grass shack. Try living in one during monsoon season.” Simone, thinking herself above reproach since she was born in Cambodia, too, counters: “This is my country as much as it is yours. I know what the Cambodians want.” Clothilde points out that Simone was “born into the privilege of French citizenship.” The scrolls contain history. They are an important account of a lost civilization. Irene wants them for her own purposes; Simone wants them for the communists.
Don’t the Cambodians have the right to own their own history? Irene will have to answer this question for herself. She will have to decide what is most important to her.
The Map of Lost Memories is an engrossing debut by a talented novelist. Fay’s heart and soul is within these pages. Filled with adventure, danger, and even some romance, The Map of Lost Memories takes readers on a journey of epic proportions. I’ve never physically been to Cambodia, but, reading Fay’s story, I became an armchair traveler to a land very far away.