Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Book Review: "The Map of Lost Memories"

"The Map of Lost Memories" by Kim Fay
First published in 2012
323 pages
My rating: 4 out of 5
(image source)

I'm a big historical fiction fan, but I tend to only pick up novels set in America or Europe. Kim Fay's debut novel, "The Map of Lost Memories," which takes place in Shanghai and Cambodia in 1925, was definitely a bit different from my usual fare. But different is typically good, and a new setting and a fresh voice made for a refreshing change of pace -- and I learned a few things, too!

She's not yet 30, but Irene Blum has devoted years of her life to Seattle's Brooke Museum of Oriental Art and is almost single-handedly responsible for its rise to prominence. Irene -- with her savvy, her skills at acquiring hard-to-find pieces and her passion for ancient Cambodia -- is the obvious choice to replace the museum's elderly curator upon his retirement, so she's absolutely flabbergasted when the museum's trustees pass her over for the position -- in part because she's a woman.

Now Irene has something to prove -- to the museum trustees, the world and herself -- and she sets about gathering the pieces and the people for an expedition deep into the jungles of Cambodia in search of a priceless ancient artifact. Irene possesses a map that she hopes will lead her to a set of 10 copper scrolls on which the history -- and mysterious downfall -- of the Khmer, or ancient Cambodians, is said to be inscribed.

Fueled by spite at the Brooke Museum trustees, Irene plans to take the scrolls to American and use them to cement her reputation in the museum world. But she needs help to find the uncharted temple where the scrolls are rumored to be hidden, and a rather motley crew comes together to join Irene on the treasure hunt -- the wife of a Communist party leader, the assistant curator of a museum in Cambodia, a Shanghai nightclub owner and a former Cambodian prostitute. Cultures and ideals clash, and in this novel of secrets, each player has his or her own motives -- and plans for the invaluable scrolls.

"The Map of Lost Memories" was a bit of a slow starter for me, partly because I have essentially no knowledge of Cambodia and I had to get my bearings in a book filled with names, words and customs that were new to me. But I kept my phone by my side to look up pictures of unfamiliar things mentioned in the book (like Cambodia's Angkor Wat -- one of the the largest religious monuments in the world) and before long I was immersed in the Orient in 1925.

I enjoyed journeying to a new land out of my normal element and, while I found Fay's writing to be a bit slow-moving at times, she provided lots of color and atmosphere to the story. Her debut novel was a pretty good read, and I'd check out her next book if it happens across my path.

Happy reading!

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