As a woman in 1925, Irene Blum feels that her work does not get the recognition it deserves. When she misses out on the position of curator at Seattle’s Brooke Museum, she dreams of making an important historical discovery, one that she can build her own museum around. Since her childhood she has been fascinated by Cambodia and its ancient Khmer civilisation, so when she learns of the possible existence of ten copper scrolls recording the history of the Khmer people she sets off on an expedition to Cambodia to search for them.
Irene begins her journey in Shanghai where she hopes to enlist the help of Simone Merlin, a revolutionary activist and Cambodian scholar who shares Irene’s interest in the Khmer. Despite the disapproval of her abusive husband Simone agrees to join her. At first Irene is pleased to have Simone’s support, but soon begins to wonder whether she might have reasons of her own for wanting to find the lost scrolls.
The novel is divided into three sections. The first is set in Shanghai, China, the second in Saigon, Vietnam and in the third Irene, Simone and their companions finally arrive at their destination, the Cambodian jungle. None of these are places that I know very much about (Cambodia was a completely new setting for me and the other two I only have a very limited knowledge of) and I loved all the descriptions of the three locations. It’s always interesting to read about cultures that are entirely different to your own and by the time I’d finished the book I felt I’d learned a little bit about what life might have been like in China, Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1920s, as well as learning some facts about the Khmer civilisation.
The Map of Lost Memories is not a fast-paced thriller filled with non-stop action and adventure, although it might sound like one from the synopsis. Instead, the story develops quite slowly (a bit too slowly for me, to be honest, especially throughout the first half of the novel) and although Irene and Simone do have some adventures and things get more exciting later in the book, there’s also a lot of focus on the personal lives of the two women, their relationships and their motives for searching for the legendary scrolls.
It was good to read a book set in the 1920s with strong female protagonists at a time when women didn’t have the same career opportunities they have today. However, although I sympathised with Irene’s frustration at her achievements constantly being overlooked or ignored and I admired her dedication and determination, I was never able to warm to her as a character. Unfortunately I didn’t feel much connection to any of the other characters either, which meant that even when they were heading into danger I found I didn’t really care what happened to them. The plot and the setting almost made up for my lack of interest in the characters so I did still enjoy the book, but not as much as I might otherwise have done. This was a promising debut novel, though – it was obvious that the author must have a real passion for Cambodia and Khmer history and that she knows the subject well.