Fiction often gives us characters who lie, cheat, and commit murder to achieve their goals. Usually these nefarious types are presented as the villain. But in Kim Fay’s The Map of Lost Memories, our young, determined heroine, Irene Blum, will stop at nothing to claim the mysterious lost scrolls of the Khmer.
It’s the mid-1920s when Irene is passed over for a promotion at Seattle’s Brook Museum, and she wants revenge. That, she believes, will come in the form of the greatest archaeological discovery of the twentieth century. Irene travels to Southeast Asia with a plan to steal the lost scrolls, which have come to her knowledge through her dead father’s mysterious friend, Mr. Simms.
Before Irene’s search leads her deep into the Cambodian jungle, she must first recruit Simone Merlin, the opium-addicted French wife of an abusive but powerful Communist revolutionary. “I will never do anything I don’t believe is right,” Simone tells Irene, but Simone’s moral stance, her professed love for the Cambodian people, and her weakness for opium could make her a liability.
Her plan is “to take the scrolls to America as the centerpiece for a new institution, one in which she [is] in charge.” In an era when the looting of antiquities by Westerners was considered scientific discovery at best and adventure at worst, Irene is only reflecting the western attitude of the times when she asks, “Who does it all really belong to anyway?” then answers herself: “Whoever gets to it first.”
That’s an intriguing thing to say. But Simms keeps a lot to himself.
Author Kim Fay has spent time in southeast Asia, and with graceful exposition she educates us about Khmer history, Cambodian geography, and local color. At times I felt I was seeing the country through her loving eyes: “Irene walked over to the vendor. Breathing in the scent of fish drifting on a current of lemongrass and star anise, she felt her strength begin to return. And it amazed her that somehow, despite how this part of the world wearied her, it also gave her sustenance–just to stand in the middle of it, sheltered from the midday sun by the flaming petals of a coral tree.”
Fay may be enjoying vicarious adventures through her heroine, but I suspect that in Irene she has created a character far outside herself. Fay has spent enough time in southeast Asia to have made friends there, but Irene doesn’t take the trouble. “She had never dreamed she could feel unwelcome among these people when they meant so much to her,” Irene reflects, yet she has only studied them as a scholar does, views them from a distance, does not speak their language or reach out to them and only schemes to steal their heritage.
In the end, Irene both succeeds and fails, and by this I mean that sometimes we don’t get what we want, but we get what we need. We’re not sure we like Irene and we don’t know if she’s going to do the right thing. This makes her an intriguing character to follow on harrowing adventures through the jungles of Cambodia to find a hidden temple, the fabled scrolls, and, perhaps, something more valuable.
A couple of Hometown Pasadena details:
There’s mention of “Pasadena. Huntington’s estate. The night Isadora Duncan danced on the lawn.”
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, Fay is also the author of Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, winner of the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards’ Best Asian Cuisine Book in the United States. She is also creator and editor of the To Asia With Love guidebook Series. Fay currently lives in Los Angeles.
Hometown Author Petrea Burchard‘s new novel, Camelot & Vine, comes out this winter. Her blog, Pasadena Daily Photo, is featured on Hometown Pasadena’s “Best Blogs in San Gabriel Valley.” Petrea’s 30-year acting career began morphing into a writing career with “Act As If,” her humor column about the journeyman actor’s life, now in reruns at NowCasting.com. She gained a following in the animè world as the original English voice of Ryoko, a space pirate in the cult classic Tenchi Muyo!, and continues voice-over work as the voice of Stater Bros. markets.