BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Map of Lost Memories’ : Impressive Debut Novel Explores Exotic World of Asian Treasure Seeking in the 1920s

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Map of Lost Memories' : Impressive Debut Novel Explores Exotic World of Asian Treasure Seeking in the 1920s

I was surprised to read that Kim Fay’s “The Map of Lost Memories” (Ballantine Books, 336 pages, $26.00) is her debut novel. The book is so nuanced and atmospheric that it comes across to this reviewer as the work of an experienced novelist. She has a strong background as a bookseller, a cookbook and guidebook author/editor and the advantage of having lived in Vietnam, one of the countries that made up the former French Indochina, the setting of much of the book, but none of this would seem to foretell the writing of such a full-blown literary novel as “The Map of Lost Memories.”


It’s 1925. The central figure of the novel, Irene Blum, has been passed over for the coveted curator position at the Brooke Museum of Oriental Art in Seattle. After 70-year-old Professor Howard announced his retirement as curator, Irene had expected to be the most qualified candidate for the post, thanks to her experience in acquiring priceless — often illicit — artifacts from Southeast Asia, her specialty.


Irene is stunned when Marshall Cabot, a man she believes to be not as qualified as she is, gets the curator post. In vain she cites two prominent women curators at museums in Baltimore and New York City in her plea for the post at a meeting of the board of directors. But the world of museum curators then — as I suspect now — is the preserve of men, especially since museum boards believe the post is no place for “the little woman” who is, in their minds, best suited to being a devoted assistant to the male curator. Irene angrily rejects that offer and stalks out of the museum.


With the financial backing and moral support of Henry Simms — a wealthy elderly man who was her father’s oldest and closest friend — she embarks on the adventure of a lifetime for an experienced scholar who is on the cusp of her 30th birthday (toward the end of the novel, in the jungles of Cambodia, we learn that she was born in 1896).

Kim Fay

Kim Fay

“The Map of Lost Memories” combines the adventures of, say, “The Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Lara Croft, Tomb Raider”, along with much of the experiences of the exotic tropical journey of Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella “Heart of Darkness” (the literary basis for Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now”) as Irene ventures into the male-dominated world of international treasure hunters. 


Arriving in Shanghai, Irene assembles her expedition members for a daring — and potentially dangerous — journey to Cambodia to find a set of copper scrolls that chronicle Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization. She has a map that describes a temple in the Cambodian jungle — the discovery of which would rival the discovery of the massive Angkor Wat complex in the 19th Century — and would be the greatest archaeological discovery of the young 20th Century.


Irene befriends — if that’s the word for people who have different views of the lost scrolls– a number of equally determined companions, including Simone Merlin, who, along with her Communist activist husband Roger, has plans of her own for the scrolls. She also meets a man who knows Henry Simms, Marc Rafferty, a nightclub owner with a complicated past. I momentarily equated Marc with Rick Blaine in “Casablanca”, minus the prior relationship with Irene. Marc and Irene are immediately attracted romantically.


As she and her fellow adventurers sweep across borders and make startling discoveries, their quest becomes increasingly dangerous. Everyone who comes to this part of the world “has something to hide,” Irene is told in Shanghai — and she learns just how true this is. The run-up to the expedition culminates in a startling crime committed by Simone and Irene, which bonds them in a desperate relationship.


On the site, Kim Fay describes the genesis of “The Map of Lost Memories”:


“The Map of Lost Memories holds a special place in my heart. When I was a child, my grandfather lived with my family, and at night he would sit on the side of my bed and tell me stories about his life as a sailor in Asia in the 1930s. Together we would pore over his photos, most of which were of Shanghai and showed an exotic world of rickshaws and sampans against a backdrop of majestic European buildings.

“As I grew up, my fascination with Asia simmered within me until I graduated from college and made my first trip. I was smitten by the sodden heat, the smell of incense and jasmine down hidden lanes, and the magical combination of foreignness and familiarity. I continued to return to that part of the world until finally I moved to Vietnam. It was there that I read about Andre and Clara Malraux, a French couple who looted a Cambodian temple in the 1920s to raise money for the Communist party. With that, the first glimmer of my novel appeared.

“In the following years, surrounded by the remnants of French colonialism, I could not stop thinking about the Westerners who came to Asia to claim a piece of it for themselves. I began to research every bit of information available on the history of illicit art collecting at the beginning of the twentieth century. I traveled to Shanghai to trace the stories my grandfather once told me. And I went to Angkor Wat. I had read so much about this temple and thought about it for such a long time, and still its grandeur stunned me.”


Here’s an excerpt from this engrossing, multi-layered novel, which I consider to be the literary tour de forceof 2012:


Shanghai Chapter 1 Desperate Weather”

“At the far end of the apartment, a row of shutters opened onto a balcony overlooking the swayback roofs of Shanghai. Beyond the low buildings and down a crooked street, the Whangpoo River shushed against the wharves. A heavy, velvet humidity pressed down on this dark belt of water, a perpetual tension that caused a wilted draft, lifting fumes of jasmine and sewage, coal and rotting river weed, into the thick night air.

“Inside, the small living room was crowded with a dozen overheated journalists and revolutionaries, as well as the usual assortment of eccentrics that congregated at parties in Shanghai in 1925: a Persian opera singer, a White Russian baroness, and a gunrunner of indeterminate nationality. There was a priest bright-eyed on cocaine he had ordered from the room service menu at the Astor House, and Irene Blum recognized the Italian fascist she had seen the night before, parading through the Del Monte with a tiger on a leather leash. Shanghailanders never needed an excuse to gather, but tonight they had one: the return of Roger and Simone Merlin from France, where the couple had gone to raise funds for China’s Communist party.

“The Merlins were late, and a restlessness that matched Irene’s stirred among the guests. She overheard the Italian fascist complain, “Bloody hot,” prompting the Persian opera singer to declare, “Desperate weather. Did you hear about the Argentine ballerina caught stealing spices in the Chinese market? She wears only Coco Chanel. Every time the peddler turned his back, she dropped another pinch of saffron into her pocket. She swears she doesn’t know why she did it. Insists the heat must have addled her brain.”

“Irene understood. It was unsettling, the way the heat subverted. She had been in Shanghai only one week, but already, each day around the noon hour, when the sun was high and the city lay exposed, she found herself envisioning the most uncharacteristic acts. Stabbing a rickshaw driver with her penknife, or shoving one of the demure chambermaids down the back stairs of her hotel. Of course she did not act upon these impulses, but their eruption harassed her and caused a heat-stricken feeling of agitation that had reached a new level of intensity tonight. She had not expected to have to wait a week to meet Simone Merlin, and she was wound tight with anticipation. She could not stop watching the door. Unable to concentrate on conversation, she slipped out to the balcony, where she leaned against the railing, plucking the fabric of her dress away from her skin, seeking relief from the muggy room.

“She was soon joined by Anne Howard. Anne had arranged the party so Irene could meet Simone, and yet she now said, “It’s not too late to change your mind.”

“‘Why are you so against this?’ Irene asked.

“ ‘Darling, I’m looking out for you, that’s all. This is bigger than anything you’ve been involved with before. It’s not a jaunt to Phoenix to find out if you can detect a forged—’

“ ‘I did detect it. And I saved Mr. Simms a great deal of money on that statue, not to mention the humiliation of being duped by a greasy con man from Arizona.”

“ ‘I know you did. You’re good at what you do. I’m not denying that. But if the wrong person gets wind of this. If anyone finds out what you’re searching for. And the jungles! Irene, you don’t seem to realize what a different league you’re in with this expedition.’”

* * *

One reading won’t suffice for “The Map of Lost Memories.” As soon as I finished reading the novel, I vowed to read it again, and soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if we learn of the further adventures of Irene Blum and her friends and enemies in a subsequent novel by Kim Fay.


About the author


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 the author of the historical novel “The Map of Lost Memories” — her fiction debut — and “Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam,” winner of the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards’ Best Asian Cuisine Book in the United States. She is also the creator/editor of the “To Asia With Love” guidebook series. She now lives in Los Angeles, reversing the frequent migration of Southern Californians to Seattle.


Her website:

Publisher’s website:


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