March Book a Month: The Map of Lost Memories

MapofLostMemoriesAs part of our 2014 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions about the featured work—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. You may use the questions to reflect back on each book once you’ve finished it or to guide you as you read. Either way, we hope these features will enrich your reading experience. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)

“The one thing to remember about an adventure is that if it turns out the way you expect it to, it has not been an adventure at all.” In our March selection, The Map of Lost Memories, Irene Blum embarks upon the journey of a lifetime after a crushing setback threatens to destroy her dream of becoming America’s first female head museum curator. Debut novelist Kim Fay drew on her own experience living in Vietnam and traveling through China and Cambodia to pen this thrilling tale of adventure, obsession, history, and self-discovery, set against the vivid backdrop of southeast Asia in 1925.

1. Before reading The Map of Lost Memories, how extensive was your knowledge of Vietnamese and Cambodian history? Did it go beyond a basic awareness of the Vietnam War or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge? As Irene travels from Shanghai to Saigon to Cambodia, what aspects of the places and cultures that she encounters intrigued or surprised you the most?

2. When she sets out upon her quest, Irene harbors no doubt about her claim to the scrolls. When, if ever, should the desire to protect an artifact’s historical or artistic significance be trumped by the native culture’s claim on its own heritage? And as opinions and laws about trafficking in relics and artwork evolve, what arguments can be made for and against returning objects like the Elgin Marbles to their lands of origin?

3. Irene ventures to Cambodia while it is under French control. The colonists wield considerable authority over an impoverished native population that is descended from a wealthy, powerful, culturally and technically advanced civilization. What parallels can be drawn between southeast Asia’s colonization and that of the Americas?

4. Irene and Simone spend most of the novel locked in conflict. Their obsession with the scrolls is both a common bond and a source of competition and division between them. How does their relationship evolve over the course of the novel? Would their quest have been different if they had been honest with each other about their motivations from the beginning?

5. Fay describes Irene Blum as “a grown-up version of Nancy Drew, albeit a version without moral boundaries.” What was your response to Irene’s character? Did your impression of her change as the novel progressed? In this particular story, would she have been a more or less effective protagonist if she was a man?

6. Like most of the characters in The Map of Lost Memories, Henry Simms is a man with admirable qualities, but he’s no saint. He loves Irene, yet isn’t above manipulating her for his own agenda. Is he a sympathetic character? And if he was young and healthy enough to search out the scrolls for himself, would he have made the same choice at the temple that Irene did?

7. The physical setting of the novel—from the cosmopolitan streets of Shanghai to the oppressive heat of French-colonial Saigon to the raw wilderness of the Cambodian jungle—is vivid enough to serve as supporting character in its own right. How does Irene, a foreigner, react to the setting differently than Simone and Marc do? 

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