“The one thing to remember about an adventure is that if it turns out the way you expect it to, it has not been an adventure at all.”
~Map of Lost Memories
Imagine if F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) had written Indiana Jones, with a female protagonist. There would be adventure, but there would also be lush, rich prose. There would be a treasure hunt (with snakes!), but there would also be seething emotional undercurrents, an exploration of twisted personalities and questionable motives.
This is that book, the Map of Lost Memories, a debut historical fiction from Kim Fay. Set in 1925 in Shanghai and Cambodia, the story is about the search for a rumored hidden temple and a set of copper scrolls that will reveal the history of the lost Khmer people. I first encountered this novel many years ago when I read the first chapter of the manuscript in some contest. I was so immediately enthralled, so pulled into Ms. Fay’s premise and her rich story-telling style, that I immediately wrote and begged for the rest of the story. Sometimes you just know when you’ve touched something special. This work haunted me for years. I am so glad that Ballantine Books agreed and now the rest of the world can discover what I did.
Irene Blum, the protagonist, is a unique character—stubborn, driven, in many ways ruthless, but still with a hidden core of insecurity, of vulnerability. She is a study in control, a focused list maker. She lies with ease if it serves her goals. Early in the book is a description of Anne, an unconventional friend of Irene’s mother, a woman Irene deeply admires and has longed to emulate since her strange childhood days, growing up in a museum while her father was the night watchman:
“As teachers fretfully noted her [Irene’s] lack of interest in domestic skills or other female pursuits, the life Anne was living in Shanghai gave Irene hope. It proved that a woman could do anything she liked as long as she did not care what others thought. Every day, with her maps and books and dreams of lost treasures, Irene practiced not caring.”
This is the woman who, in 1925, dismissed from a longed-for job as a museum curator, a job for which was eminently qualified, except for the fact that she was a woman, comes first to Shanghai and then to Cambodia to prove them all wrong.
“I’m having the hardest time walking back through this” Irene says, “… Not just last night but these past days in Shanghai, the last months in Seattle, I’m trying to get back…before I lost my job, before my father died. There’s a path, there must be a path from here to there, but I can’t find it. I can’t make the connections.”
This then is the crux of Irene’s story. To find a way back to the life she’d planned, by any means, the life that was thrown so off course with her father’s death and the loss of the job she felt she’d earned. This is a book about going after a goal so hard that you lose yourself in the process, and only midway, when you’re in too deep, stopping to wonder if it is really the right goal after all. And if you are really willing to do all that it takes to achieve that, or if the price will be too high.
Her business partner in the hunt for the scrolls is Simone Merlin, a woman who often reminded me of Daisy Buchannan in The Great Gatsby. She is an intelligent woman, but she is driven solely by her emotions, which are almost always raw and on the surface, exacerbated by a mind that is frequently addled by opium or whatever other drug she can get her hands on. She’s brilliant, and Irene needs her, but she’s utterly unstable and unreliable. Simone is a study in contradictions: emotionally and physically fragile, but with a core as hard as the stone temples she seeks. She’s almost bi-polar in her mood swings. Irene describes Simone:
“Welcome to the rabbit hole. I could sit here guessing for a year and the only thing I’d know for sure is that whatever I concluded, if Simone is involved, I wouldn’t be right.”Both women have been raised with a love for the Khmer people of Cambodia, the lost people who built the largest temple in the world, Angkor Wat, then disappeared as silently as the Mayans or the Anasazi. Each woman has a soul deep need to find their lost history, to find out what happened to them. But each of the women has an entirely different—mutually conflicting—agenda of what to do with the history— purportedly a set of the lost copper scrolls—if they find them. Irene’s and Simone’s goals align, to a point. Where they diverge, it could be deadly. As another character says,
“Both of you plan to use the scrolls to fulfill a dream. The problem is that you have such different dreams.”
There are the men in their lives as well. Henry Simms, the secretive, dying, wealthy art collector who instilled in Irene the love of the treasure hunt, who sets all the players in motion. Roger, Simone’s husband, a volatile political animal more interested in raising money for the Communists than in his wife. Louis, Simone’s former lover. And Marc Rafferty, expat, bar-owner, man of many secrets.
Unlike so many novels today, this historical fiction takes time for descriptions, brief, lush pauses that will put you into the story so fully you’ll feel the humidity on your skin and swear you smell jasmine and spices overlaying the scent of mold and rot and unwashed bodies in the dirty streets. She describes walking into a bar: “The room felt sullen with heat, Shalimar, and the masculine reek of cigars.” And just like that, you’re right there with Irene in a 360 degree immersion into the tale.
In the end this is a love story. Love that can be twisted and dark and suffocating. Love for a people and a place. Love that can save you, if you will let it, but where no one emerges unscathed or unchanged.
Irene’s mentor, Anne, says:
“I’m thankful every day for that moment of recklessness. How else would I ever have made it to the other side?”…”The place where one feels truly alive. Too many people surrender to a place of safety. That place where all they do is long to sleep so they can dream about living. Even if you don’t find what you think you’re looking for, darling, it’s the going out and looking for it that counts. That is the only way you know you have lived.”
I was so grateful to Ms. Fay for taking me along on this enticing adventure, and am looking forward to more from this wonderful author!
Tell me, do you have a book that carried you away and that still haunts you?
~Guest post by Kat Sheridan
Born in Seattle and raised throughout Washington State, Kim Fay lived in Vietnam for four years and still travels to Southeast Asia frequently. A former independent bookseller, she is the author of the historical novel "The Map of Lost Memories" and "Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam," winner of the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards' Best Asian Cuisine Book in the United States. I am also the creator/editor of the To Asia With Love guidebook series. The Map of Lost Memories is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, as well as fine independant bookstores like Elliott Bay Book Company.