The Map of Lost Memories, by Kim Fay
There really isn’t anywhere quite like Angkor Wat. Imagine losing the Vatican in a jungle for a few centuries and then finding it again, surrounded by the ruins of ancient Rome, all so overgrown with foliage that creeper vines have worked their way between the walls and formed a symbiosis of root and stone, with bas reliefs and carvings stretching around the giant halls. Hold that image and you might dimly grasp the fabled lost city of Cambodia, one of the most remarkable places on earth.
The magic of Angkor is captured by Kim Fay in her promising debut novel The Map of Lost Memories. A former travel writer, Fay brilliantly captures a sense of place, taking us on a quest from Shanghai to Saigon to the jungles of Cambodia in search of ancient scrolls that tell the lost history of Khmer civilisation. Her sense of character is much less certain, however, which greatly weakens the first half of the novel; only when the adventurers reach Cambodia do they really emerge as believable individuals.
The novel begins in Shanghai in 1925 and Fay marvellously creates a sense of place with precise touches:
At the far end of the apartment, a row of shutters opened onto the 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.
In a short paragraph, Fay compresses impressions of sight (swayback roofs, crooked street), sound (the shushing river), touch (velvet humidity) and the connected senses of smell and taste (jasmine and sewage), with the mix of aromas conveying Shanghai’s blend of exotic beauty and seedy corruption. This balance of rich yet concise prose is a feature of her writing, and her descriptions of Angkor rank among the best.
However, the major flaw in her writing is something that affects many first-time writers – character. In the first half of the novel, the characters are little more than stock figures lifted from romance novels. If you’re a fan of the genre, then this book is perfect for you, being vastly superior to the average; if you’re not, then frustration builds in the first half as the many excellent aspects of Fay’s writing are repeatedly spoiled by characters who rarely rise above cliché and stereotype.
The novel centres around two women, Irene Blum and Simone Merlin, who are both pluckily fighting male oppression. Irene Blum, having quietly slaved behind the scenes to build the reputation of the Brooke Museum, is passed over for the position of curator by three men who “were nearly interchangeable,” a horribly imprecise description that reduces them all to stereotypes, and as the victim of stereotypes Irene becomes a cliché herself, the highly talented woman unfairly blocked by the glass ceiling.
Simone, being French, must be beautiful yet mercurial. Her husband, being a French intellectual, must abuse her violently. He is reputedly the “most dangerous man in Asia” but actually seems more like a lost B-movie villain with no stage presence or motivation. The handsome stranger, Marc Rafferty, wears “an unconventional collarless shirt” and “would have been too handsome if his face had not been hardened by a look of tired reproach.” I rolled my eyes and said to myself that if he whispers to Irene “you’ve always been a part of me,” I’m going to jump right out the window.
Then he did, so I jumped.
Fortunately, I live in a bungalow so there was no great harm done, which allowed me to read the greatly improved second half of the book. Characters emerge when they make choices, when they have strong beliefs about goals they will not compromise on, and so the protagonists only come alive when they reach Cambodia and commence arguing about what they will do with the ancient scrolls if they find them. Irene, Simone, and Louis (a French expert on Angkor Wat and former lover of Simone) all have competing aims and this generates the novel’s tension as you wonder what outcome can satisfy all three. Only Marc remains indistinct, becoming a man whose sole ambition is to follow Irene around and obey her every instruction, handsomely. Okay, I know a lot of people read books specifically to swoon over such fantasy men, but as a character he is less real than Louis, who loves Simone but refuses to sacrifice the only written history of Khmer culture to her ambitions.
Ultimately, the powerful descriptions and dramatic tension of the second half of the novel make up for the insecure and clichéd characterisation of the first half. I hope the second part of the novel represents the growing assuredness of Kim Fay as a writer of character, for she has many of the ingredients of a great author: her descriptions are luminous, her dialogue (in the second half) is mellifluous and thought-provoking, and her plotting is well-handled. The weakness of the book is its use of stock characters from romance/adventure novels, but once the characters break free of those moulds the novel comes alive. If Kim Fay builds on that in her future work, then she really will be a novelist to watch out for.