In 1925, Irene Blum arrives in Shanghai with a map and a mission: to venture deep into Cambodia to find ten copper scrolls containing the as-yet-unknown history of the vanished Khmer civilization. Upset after losing a museum curatorship to a male colleague, Irene needs the scrolls to fulfill her ambitions in the art world.
On her mentor’s advice, she recruits the help of Simone Merlin, whose linguistic and temple-robbing knowledge is counterbalanced by her drug addiction and abusive, Communist-supporting husband. Others join them, and their quest becomes an odyssey of personal discovery that tests Irene’s physical and psychological endurance.
Every word of this evocative literary expedition feels deliberately chosen, each phrase full of meaning. From the murky Shanghai underworld, in which information is traded like currency, to the isolated Cambodian jungle, whose overheated air is thick with mistrust, Fay brilliantly imagines a singular heroine who forges her own path through unfamiliar country.
The Map of Lost Memories is published tomorrow by Ballantine at $26.00 (hb, 336pp). In the UK, the publisher is Hodder & Stoughton (£13.99, hb, 336pp). This is one of three starred reviews I wrote up for Booklist recently, and it appeared in their August issue.
Coming on Wednesday: An interview with Kim Fay.