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Four Trowels

THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES

By: Kim Fay
Ballantine Books:  New York
2012 (HC) 

In an elegantly crafted first novel, author Kim Fay has combined all the elements necessary to create a compelling work of fiction:  sympathetic yet complex protagonists, an atmospheric sense of place and time, and a powerful plot line. 

It is 1925 and Irene Blum is a young and self-assured curator at the Brooke Museum of Oriental Art In Seattle.  She has literally grown up in the museum as the daughter of the institution’s night watchman, and after his death, she has learned the art and craft of curating a museum collection under the tutelage of Professor Howard, the aging museum director.  She has, through intellect and tireless perseverance, made herself a leading expert in the art and culture of the ancient Khmer civilization of Cambodia.  Upon his retirement, Professor Howard assures her that the museum directorship will be hers.  Unfortunately the Board of Trustees have other plans and Marshall Cabot, a suave young  art historian with an advanced degree from the Sorbonne is awarded the position rather than Irene, who they view as a young, inexperienced and largely self-trained female who would nicely fit the role of  Marshall’s assistant and Girl Friday.  Irene, in a fit of pique, surrenders her position at the Brooke and storms out of the meeting, severing all ties to the institution that has been her intellectual and literal home most of her life. 

But she is rescued from her time of despair by Henry Simms, her father’s oldest friend and fellow adventurer from their youthful days in the Far East.  He is an extremely wealthy man-- a major figure in the world of Oriental art collectors-- and he is dying of cancer.  He has been a benefactor to the Brooke Museum, and more importantly a benefactor to Irene following first, the death of her mother, and then later, the death of her father.  He has, in fact, been a major influence in her dedication to and near obsession with the Khmer culture.  He offers her the opportunity to manage and complete his private collection but this quickly takes a back seat when she bestows on Simms an antique box her father had hidden away and addressed to Henry.  The box contains a journal penned by the Reverend James T. Garland in 1825 and a hand-drawn map.  The missionary had written of coming upon the ancient ruins called Ang Cor (known in contemporary times as Angkor Wat and first officially reported in the 1860s).  Garland alluded to ten copper scrolls hidden in a temple deep in the jungles northwest of Angkor Wat.  These scrolls, long rumored to exist among the circle of archaeologists and treasure hunters, were said to hold the history of the rise and fall of the Khmer civilization—a history still unknown in 1925.  If they truly existed and could be unearthed using the journal and map, the scrolls would represent the crowning achievement of Henry Simms’ collection and provide Irene with a perfect act of revenge against the Trustees of the Brooke Museum.   

Henry Simms enlists Irene in the search for the scrolls, provides her with near unlimited funds, and sends her off to the Far East on an almost mystical quest.  He directs her Shanghai to recruit a certain Simone Merlin, a devoted expert on all matters Cambodian (as well as an ardent partisan of the Communist cause in East Asia) and the wife of the brutally abusive revolutionist, Roger Merlin.  She adds to her small cadre of treasure hunters Marc Rafferty, the estranged son of Henry Simms -- owner of a notorious Shanghai nightclub and buyer and seller of information-- and Louis Lafont, the assistant curator of Conservation d’Angkor in Cambodia. 

The balance of the novel follows the twists and turns of Irene’s quest -- from the fleshpots of Shanghai to the streets of Saigon and into the jungles of Cambodia.  While ostensibly a tale of high adventure and treasure hunting in an era of rapacious tomb raiding,  The Map of Lost Memories is also a voyage of discovery—a journey into the dreams and obsessions of the motley group that heads out into the jungles, a journey into the meaning and definitions of relationships,  of love and devotion.  It is an exquisite novel on many levels, not the least in the way author Fay describes the ambiance and atmosphere of Southeast Asia in the 1920s; the sights, sounds and even the smells of Shanghai, Saigon and Cambodia are vivid and richly conveyed. 

Four trowels for this wonderful first novel from a very talented young writer!

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.