Not all is as it seems. The Map of Lost Memories is not your typical adventure story. It may feature the search for lost copper scrolls deep in the jungle of Cambodia and it may be steeped in the mysteries of a lost history but all of this serves as the grand and evocative backdrop for the tale of two young women back in the 1920s who are searching for the clues to an even greater puzzle – their own heritage and their purpose in this difficult and masculine environment.
The story begins in Shanghai in 1925. It focuses on Irene, a museum curator who has been cheated from what is her due because of her sex. She seeks vengeance in the form of making a great archaeological discovery that no-one can steal from her. When her elderly patron Mr Simms reveals that her recently deceased father has left him (not her) clues to a lost temple and its scrolls, she sets off on what becomes a trail of breadcrumbs. She is advised to seek out the well know Khmer linguist and archaeologist – or treasure hunter – Simone, a young Frenchwoman who was born in the east and has married a man that many believe will be the instigator of a socialist rebellion that will finally rid Cambodia of its western overlords. Charismatic leader he might be, but he is also a brute of a man and a monster of a husband. Simone is no longer the woman she may once have been.
The Map of Lost Memories follows Irene and Simone, and the men who love them, on a slow and winding trail through the hot, wet and insect-ridden jungle, pausing for tantalising glimpses of hidden villages, meandering cool rivers and Angkor Wat. The dangers come from local chiefs or officials who want to safeguard their resources as well as threats closer to home, some exaggerated by opium and alcohol and self-loathing.
The mystery of the scrolls might steer the course of the novel but The Map of Lost Memories investigates many large themes – the place of women in a man’s world, the future of the people of Cambodia, drug addiction, the theft of antiquities and the relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, between lovers.
If you were after a pageturning quest thriller, I doubt you’d be entirely satisfied. The pace is leisurely and the novel is very much about the journey rather than the destination. There are many little details about the history and environment of China and Cambodia and there is in depth scrutiny of Irene’s aspirations and needs. Set against that is Simone, a deeply damaged and unsympathetic individual. There are elements of melodrama – we are put in a famously enigmatic and romantic place and time after all – but often the mood is quiet and complex.
Irene and Simone are memorable characters, as is the jungle itself. It is vividly brought into colour for us. The women are the force behind The Map of Lost Memories and if there is any criticism it would be that the men are less well-rounded and real. I would also suggest that the novel is a little too burdened with over description. An upside of this is an enormously detailed picture of the jungle and other places, but the downside is the potential to stall the story and slow the read. Nevertheless, this is a fine novel, a literary adventure, that lingers in the mind, thanks to the wonderful portraits of Irene and Simone, and the atmosphere that seeps through the novel, evoking so strongly another place and time. If you can’t appreciate the passion and courage of Irene or feel the heat and damp of that jungle, so beautifully described by Kim Fay, I’ll be very surprised.