I am fairly uneducated when it comes to knowledge of cultures, histories and geography of the Orient. I have some vague memories of information from lessons in junior high or high school. Apart from that I'm sad to say that most of what I "know" comes from movies. Still, I'm a fan of the adventure genre and I'm definitely intrigued by areas like Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, China and others. So my interest was piqued by The Map of Lost Memories.
The author, Kim Fay, is very knowledgable about Oriental culture. She's written a number of travel and food guides centered in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Nepal. She lived in Vietnam for many years and travels there frequently. So while I can't speak personally to whether her portrayal of the cities, places and cultures are accurate, I can look to her as being far more knowledgable than I am. And based on the degree of detail she brings to every scene in the book, I am fairly certain she is painting an expertly accurate depiction of the region.
The story takes place in the 1920s. There are a few flashback scenes in Seattle but most of the story takes place in Shanghai, Cambodia and the regions between the two. The book follows the adventures of Irene Blum. Until recently, Irene has worked at the Brooke Museum spending countless hours finding, obtaining and cataloging priceless artifacts. While the Museum board recognizes her skill and acknowledges that without her they would not have as many wonderful exhibits, they also live by early 20th century ideals. Irene is passed over for the curator position at the museum either partly or wholly based on her gender.
Thanks to a long time wealthy family friend with an equal interest in antiquities, Irene sets out on a treasure hunt deep in the Orient to try and find the lost history of the ancient Khmer civilization. She hopes to use the prize to found her own legitimate reputation and bring herself into the public eye. Naturally things don't go exactly as planned. Many adventures and dangers present themselves and Irene is forced to reevaluate her position many times.
As exciting as the overall premise sounds, this isn't a literary equivalent of something like Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones. I went into the novel expecting nail biting adventure. While there are a number of action scenes, they aren't the breathtaking, edge of your seat kind of thrill rides you might expect from Lara Croft or Indiana Jones.
More than being about the adventure, I felt that this novel is about people, relationships and culture. This book is a realistic and methodical story outlining the difficulties in traveling halfway around the world to try and uncover a long-hidden secret while trying to stay beneath the radar and red tape of governments, museums and other treasure hunters.
In Shanghai and Cambodia, Irene enlists the help of a variety of experts. Each of these experts bring their own professional and personal baggage to the expedition. They each have their own motive for tracking down the Khmer history. They each have personal bias for and against other members of the party. There is plenty of psychological, verbal and sometimes physical infighting between the members of the team.
In addition to the core team members, there is also another treasure hunter looking for the Khmer history, leaders of a Communist revolution trying to hinder one member of the team, local government officials intent on keeping their position secure and local indigenous people suspicious of all outsiders and trying to remain safe.
There were a few scenes where I felt like the motivations, interactions and behaviors of the characters were a little unrealistic or strained (especially as the crew finally approaches the Khmer temple in the last ~third of the book…the interactions between Simone and Irene felt a little forced). I also felt like the romance was quite rushed all things considered and I wondered if it was added just because "there has to be a romance." But apart from that the characters generally felt real and I enjoyed the way they interacted with one another and with the other aspects of the plot.
While I didn't find the sort of adrenaline induced page turning excitement that I expected, I did find myself drawn into the strange (to me) world of the Orient. I was enthralled by the vivid and intricate culture being meticulously presented to me. The plot was interesting and compelling to read. It had just enough adventure and puzzle-treasure-hunting elements to offset the long stretches of psychological or cultural exploration. Towards the end of the book there are a few elements that seem to exist partly as motivation for a possible sequel. I found this both fun and a little cheesy.
f you go into this book looking for a Lara Croft or Indiana Jones style adventure, you'll likely be disappointed. If you are interested in the history, research and discovery of "lost cultures", you'll find a wealth of well crafted and very detailed information presented in a compelling way. The author is quite knowledgable about her subject matter and that knowledge comes through credibly and convincingly. She left me wanting to know more about the Khmer and other aspects of Cambodian culture.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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