Fay creates an intriguing scenario: the search for precious copper scrolls hidden in an ancient Khmer temple deep in the Cambodian jungle circa 1925. Irene Blum, formerly of the esteemed Brooke Museum of Oriental Art in Seattle, Washington, arrives in Shanghai with the intention of convincing Simone Merlin to join her quest to recover the scrolls, armed with a diary and maps of the area. A Communist activist married to a powerful but brutal husband, Simone is critical to locating the temple, native to the area where it is built.
Irene’s trip is funded by her mentor, wealthy art patron Henry Sims, who is dying of cancer and desperate that his talented protégé should recover the scrolls. At his direction, Irene detours to Shanghai to engage Simone. Intending to bring the scrolls back to the States, Irene hopes to address her professional humiliation at the museum after being bypassed for a well-earned promotion. Now she is on a mission, partnering with a stranger who refuses to leave an abusive spouse and has a severe dependence on various substances. A meeting with the bickering couple ends badly, putting the two women hastily en route to the Cambodian jungle.
Simone has invited a compatriot, Louis Lafont, to accompany them. Lafont has his own agenda: to keep the valuable scrolls in situ, an obvious complication considering Simone’s desire to finance a revolution in Cambodia, not to mention Irene’s secret plan to spirit the treasure away to the United States. To equalize a group where she is obviously outnumbered, Irene asks a fascinating, erudite man she has just met in Shanghai, Marc Rafferty, to join the excursion.
While the setting is dangerous and exotic, the essence of the mystery is found in the adversarial relationships among the four characters, each harboring a private agenda. As the group plunges deeper into the jungle, they are forced to join together in common purpose, survival suddenly as critical as finding the scrolls, the trek sabotaged by a government official and unexpectedly attacked by the armed native tribe serving as their escorts. Even Henry Sims, barely clinging to life, has traveled to Cambodia to await the results. Shorn of the comforts of civilization by the threat of imminent death and a grueling journey through unfamiliar terrain, recent troubles pale when the temple sanctuary is breeched, all stunned by the exquisite craftsmanship and magnificence of the repository of the history of the Khmer dynasty, the outside world yet to intrude. Everything changes in this sacred place, dreams, ambitions and schemes forgotten in a perfect moment of discovery.
Fay maintains the eerie sense of menace from the first chapter—the lack of trust among disloyal partners, secrets and alliances of each couple, private agendas—as well as reconciling the demands of various characters along the way. In 1925, this remote part of Asia has not yet been intruded upon by war, Cambodia guarding its ancient treasures from the intrusion of adventurers. Fay’s novel is a fascinating study of humans at odds, a quest bringing four strangers together in an adventure of a lifetime.