Book Club Information & Chapter One
Kim is available to attend book clubs in person or online. To get in touch with her, please go to the contact page.
For a book club discussion guide, click here.
For book club discussion questions, here
CHAPTER ONE - DESPERATE WEATHER
At the far end of the apartment, a row of shutters opened onto a 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 riverweed, into the thick night air.
Inside, the small living room was crowded with a dozen overheated journalists and revolutionaries, as well as the usual assortment of eccentrics that congregated at parties in Shanghai in 1925: a Persian opera singer, a White Russian baroness, and a gun runner of indeterminate nationality. There was a priest bright-eyed on cocaine he had ordered from the room service menu at the Astor House, and Irene Blum recognized the Italian fascist she had seen the night before, parading through the Del Monte with a tiger on a leather leash. Shanghailanders never needed an excuse to gather, but tonight they had one: the return of Roger and Simone Merlin from France, where the couple had gone to raise funds for China’s Communist party.
The Merlins were late, and a restlessness that matched Irene’s stirred among the guests. She overheard the Italian fascist complain, “Bloody hot,” prompting the Persian opera singer to declare, “Desperate weather. Did you hear about the Argentine ballerina caught stealing spices in the Chinese market? She wears only Coco Chanel. Every time the peddler turned his back, she dropped another pinch of saffron into her pocket. She swears she doesn’t know why she did it. Insists the heat must have addled her brain.”
Irene understood. It was unsettling, the way the heat subverted. She had been in Shanghai only one week, but already, each day around the noon hour, when the sun was high and the city lay exposed, she found herself envisioning the most uncharacteristic acts. Stabbing a rickshaw driver with her penknife, or shoving one of the demure chambermaids down the back stairs of her hotel. Of course she did not act upon these impulses, but their eruption harassed her and caused a heat-stricken feeling of agitation that had reached a new level of intensity tonight. She had not expected to wait a whole week to meet Simone Merlin, and she was wound tight with anticipation. She could not stop watching the door. Unable to concentrate on conversation, she slipped out to the balcony, where she leaned against the railing, plucking the fabric of her dress away from her skin, seeking relief from the muggy room.
She was soon joined by Anne Howard. Anne had arranged the party so Irene could meet Simone, and yet she now said, “It’s not too late to change your mind.”
“Why are you so against this?” Irene asked.
“Darling, I’m looking out for you, that’s all. This is bigger than anything you’ve been involved with before. It’s not a jaunt to Phoenix to find out if you can detect a forged—”
“I did detect it. And I saved Mr. Simms a great deal of money on that statue, not to mention the humiliation of being duped by a greasy conman from Arizona.”
“I know you did. You’re good at what you do. I’m not denying that. But if the wrong person gets wind of this. If anyone finds out what you’re searching for. And the jungles! Irene, you don’t seem to realize what a different league you’re in with this expedition.”
“I’m in the same league I’ve been in for years.” Irene scowled at the woman she thought she knew so well.
Nearly sixty, her gray hair cut into a fashionable bob, Anne was the self-appointed head of Shanghai’s outpost of the Brooke Museum in Seattle. She and Irene had worked together from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean for ten years, ever since the Great War broke out and Irene was given a job at the museum by its curator, Professor Howard, Anne’s former husband. She had helped Irene track down missing relics, providing information that could only be gathered in China.
A friend of Irene’s mother, Anne divorced and moved to Shanghai when Irene was five. Each Christmas, she sent Irene a gift: cloisonné rings, silk slippers, a lacquer jewel box that could nestle in the palm of a child’s hand. She was the only woman, after Irene’s mother died, who gave Irene the sort of things she really wanted. Throughout her youth, Irene read every letter Anne had sent her mother, descriptions of foot binding, imperial traditions, and the older woman’s affair with a Chinese revolutionary who had two wives. She lost herself in this exotic world the way other girls her age escaped into Jane Austen and Louisa Mae Alcott. As teachers fretfully noted her lack of interest in domestic skills or other female pursuits, the life Anne was living in Shanghai gave Irene hope. It proved that a woman could do anything she liked as long as she did not care what others thought. Every day, with her maps and books and her dreams of lost treasures, Irene practiced not caring.
It was difficult, though, not to care about Anne’s opinion. She had always encouraged Irene’s dreams, and now she did not want her to have this one that mattered most. It made no sense.
Irene took a sip of whiskey. Already she felt a little drunk, and this was unusual, since she was from Swedish stock and could generally hold her alcohol. But there was something about the delayed buildup to this moment, combined with the sweltering climate and its intoxicating effect on the body, that made her cautious with her single malt tonight. She said, “I know the risks.”
“You’re even more headstrong than I used to be.” Anne went back inside.
Irene remained on the balcony, standing apart as she often did at parties, her intense observation hidden behind the Scandinavian coolness of her pale blue eyes. She was twenty-nine, half Anne’s age, and taller than most women, but not so tall as to intimidate men. For this she was grateful, since men, when threatened, even if only by the threat of height, were difficult to manipulate. And manipulation was essential in the world of art trafficking.
With her dark blond hair pulled back into a loose chignon, Irene had dressed in an uninterrupted flow of silk that emphasized her slender figure. Fine white Indian embroidery caught the lamplight. This was a gown she had worn often for occasions at the museum, to welcome patrons and collectors. She had been wearing it the night she greeted Rockefeller with gin gimlets, when the Brooke Museum had been her pride. When she had been its pride—or so she had thought. She shook her head. She had to find a way to stop thinking about the museum. She had already wasted too much time on that bitterness. As she lit a cigarette, the warm stones of her carnelian bracelet slipped over the bend of her wrist. She touched them, for luck.
When the front door finally opened, Irene heard the Merlins’ names shouted out in greeting. Through the men and women who rose to welcome the couple, she glimpsed damp strands of dark hair. The honey light from an oil lamp reflected off a perspiring brow. Smoke adhered to the air. A chill, seemingly impossible in such oppressive weather, whisked up Irene’s spine.
Anne had run out of tumblers, and she descended upon the Merlins with rum sodas in coffee mugs. Drinks were raised in a hearty toast to the French couple whose support was integral to the strikes that were debilitating Shanghai’s European government and empowering the Communist party’s nationalist comrades, the Kuomintang. The Persian opera singer, whose lavender fedora sat askew on her head, giggled drunkenly and slurred, “It’s a miracle you were allowed back into the country.”
Clutching her glass, Irene peered past one of the shutters that hung slack against the balcony’s mildewing wall. Anne was pressing her way back out toward Irene, towing Simone Merlin by her sleeve. This was it. The moment Irene had been waiting for. Beneath the apartment in the well of darkness, she could hear the tenor of the city. Children laughed. Water splashed into dishes being washed, while a woman mewed a melancholy folk song.
Irene had seen Simone in photographs, but details had been hard to make out. In person, the young woman was afflicted with the cadaverous complexion of many Europeans who were raised in the tropics. Her floor-length dress was nearly colorless too, as if she had emerged from a landscape by Turner. Irene could not fathom how someone so washed out and small had the stamina to raid a temple and support a Communist revolution, but the contradiction intrigued her. She had no interest in people who could be summed up in a single sentence.
“Ma cherie,” Roger called after Simone from the cluster of his admirers. “Why are you dashing away from me?”
Simone did not look back. “There is someone Anne insists I meet.”
Roger took a few steps after his wife. He appeared to be in his forties, much older than her. He too was slight in build, but he held his chin arrogantly high, and his stern, intellectual’s eyeglasses deflected attention from his insubstantial physique. “Are you sure?” he asked.
It was an odd question, and Simone paused at the threshold to the balcony while Roger waited for a response. She stared stoically past Irene into the night. When it was clear that she was not going to answer, he turned to Anne’s lover, Song Yi, whose handsome face was flushed from the praise he had been receiving throughout the night for his recent translation of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto into Mandarin.
Gently, Anne asked, “How was the journey?”
“We fought the entire time. You know Roger. He doesn’t believe in compromise. I told him I intended to succeed in leaving him this time, and he tried to throw me overboard.”
She smiled, but there was no humor in her tone as she said, “I’m lucky I’m not feeding the fish at the bottom of the Arabian Sea.”
“He sounds like a horrible man,” Irene said.
“He is,” Simone confirmed.
Irene could scarcely believe that this was her first exchange with Simone Merlin as she asked, “Did he hurt you?”
“I’m alive, so no, I suppose not.”
Anne clasped Simone’s hand. “He’s going to help us save this country.” She said this as if it were a consolation.
Although Roger and Song Yi were inside and speaking only to one another, Roger’s resonant voice carried to the balcony, as if to emphasize Anne’s words. “The next stage in the strikes is a necessary evil. Men will die, it’s unfortunate, bien sûr, but if we are not willing to accept the sacrifices, then we do not truly want change.” Louder, he added, “Are you listening, my dear wife? Do you hear what I’m saying? Are you ready for the sacrifices needed to achieve what you think you want? Do you have enough conviction? Strength?”
None of the guests showed any signs of embarrassment as Roger hurled this challenge at Simone. They merely watched as if the couple were characters in a favorite film serial.
“Do you?” Roger barked.
The drunken Persian opera singer leaned forward. Irene was repulsed by the greediness of the onlookers, and moved by the exhaustion in Simone’s expression as she stepped all the way out onto the balcony and slipped behind the shelter of a louvered door.
“You can’t hide from me!” Roger shouted.
Simone sighed. “Song Yi is lovely. I’m always envious of how calm he remains. With Sun Yat-sen’s death and these latest strikes, everyone else is on edge. And now that Roger has come back, the city is going to erupt, I can feel it. The mood is like it was in Saigon, right before the authorities burned our press.” Wistfully, she added, “I envy you, Anne.”
The conversation was straying too far from where Irene needed it to be, and she hoped she did not seem unsympathetic as she guided it around. “Has Anne told you why I want to meet you?”
“She said you’re going to Cambodia.”
Irene waited for more, but Simone was silent.
Finally, Anne spoke. “That’s all I revealed. The details aren’t mine to tell.”
Simone perked up. “Had I known I was in for a mystery tonight, I would have dressed for the occasion.”
With the woman’s attention triggered, Irene quickly introduced herself. “I’m Irene Blum, of the Brooke Museum.”
“I know the Brooke well. It has quite the layered reputation.”
Irene was pleased. That reputation was her doing, even though she had not been rewarded for it. Had not even been acknowledged, in the end. “Like you, I specialize in Cambodia and its ancient Khmer people. Of course, not exactly like you. I’ve never been to Cambodia, and my father wasn’t an Angkor scholar. He was the night watchman at the museum. I grew up in it. You could say I was its student. Your student too. Your monograph about celestial imagery in Khmer art is masterful.”
“Are you trying to flatter me?”
“I’m being truthful. Your life … it’s the life I always wanted.”
“Unhappily married to a scoundrel? I find that a strange aspiration.”
“I’m talking about—”
Anne interjected. “Simone, when Irene was nine, her mother died. Her father had the good sense not to hand her off to the first pie-baking matron who waddled along. He took her to the museum with him every night instead. She spent her childhood sleeping in the Hall of the Apsaras. He gave her a calling. A woman with a calling, now that is a thing of beauty.” She sighed. “Great beauty and great danger. Tread cautiously, my dear,” she warned, before going back inside to her guests.
“The mystery deepens,” Simone murmured.
“It is an honor to meet you,” Irene maintained, thrusting out her hand. She could feel the range of calluses on Simone’s palm, and she considered their source: the ruins Simone had spent her childhood scaling, the bas relief that she and Roger had stolen from the temple of Banteay Srei. Irene had seen the sculpted stone for herself in Seattle, and it awed her to think of Simone prying it from the temple’s wall.
Simone opened her handbag and removed an enamel compact. Her fingertip fluttered into a pad of lip rouge. She applied a thin stain, and when she finished, her reddened mouth reminded Irene of the women in the Chinese district who spit rusty betel nut juice into the street. “Are you going to tell me what you want, or do I need to make tiresome small talk for awhile?”
“I’m not usually this nervous,” Irene admitted.
“Is it because you have a secret?”
“A remarkable secret.”
“If it helps, you’re not alone. Everyone who comes to Shanghai has something to hide.”
Irene contemplated the room. “That’s not how it seems. It feels as if everything here is on display. Communism, opium—”
“Cleavage and heartache? How many woe-is-me stories have you already heard of fat English husbands stolen away from their families by nubile Chinese prostitutes?”
“Too many, considering I’ve only been here a week.” Eased by Simone’s candor, Irene asked, “Would you tell me something about your life in Cambodia? Anything you like.”
“So, tiresome small talk it is.”
“Not to me.”
Blinking in the direction of her husband, who was declaring that the Chinese needed foreigners to show them how to rid themselves of foreign rule, Simone reached for a rattan fan that had been left on the railing. As she waved it, stirring the air, the scent of boiled ginger floated across the balcony. “I was a girl when I left. Only eighteen. I couldn’t predict how hypocritical Roger’s version of a revolution would become.”
Irene was not political, but she wasn’t ignorant either. She knew about Communists, and not just how they raided the tsar’s palaces, scattering Botticellis and Rembrandts to pay for their rebellion. She also knew they controlled the Kuomintang and wanted to take over Shanghai, and China altogether if they could manage it. But this did not interest her, despite the role she knew the Merlins played. “Do you want to go back to Cambodia?” she asked.
“I miss it.”
“What do you miss most?”
“To stand in Angkor Wat is to be humbled,” Simone said. “A temple that served as an entire city, the pinnacle of Khmer civilization, abandoned for centuries, but still, it is …” She eyed her husband warily through the slats in the louvers. “It is …”
As if facing a mirror, Irene recognized Simone’s guarded expression. “You can trust me.”
“It is holy.”
Irene heard this, holy, as if it were a password. “I’m going to Cambodia in search of a lost temple. I’m going to search for the history of the Khmer.” She had not planned to blurt this out, and she paused, rubbing her collar between her thumb and forefinger.
“Go on,” Simone urged.
The inquisitive look on Simone’s face was encouragement enough, and Irene continued, “I have a diary that belonged to a missionary. It indicates that he found a written history of the empire.”
“Anyone who has ever studied the Khmer talks of such a finding.”
“Dreams of it,” Irene corrected her. “Do you dream of it?”
“I’m not sure anymore.” Simone shifted, and with her back to the yellow light shining down from a torch at the end of the balcony, her face was hidden by its own shadow.
“I want to hire you to help me find the scrolls.”
Simone’s voice lurched. “Scrolls?”
“You’ve heard of them, haven’t you?”
“I’ve heard the rumors, like everyone else.”
“This is more than a rumor. I have a map.”
Simone grazed the fan against her cheek. “Why did you come to me?”
“You took the bas relief from Banteay Srei. You know how to do this sort of thing.”
“How do you know about … oh yes, you would know. You work at the Brooke. Are you going to take the scrolls for the museum?”
“Actually, I worked at the Brooke. There was a … a falling out. So no, I won’t be taking the scrolls back there. I want them for me, to study, and I don’t plan on taking them anywhere.” This wasn’t true, but she could not tell Simone. She could not risk anyone knowing that she was going to take the scrolls to America as a centerpiece for a new institution—one in which she was in charge. “But I’ll still need secrecy. You know what would happen if a single word of this got out. If anyone knew we’d found the key to a lost civilization, we’d have every archaeologist and treasure hunter out there after us.”
“I’ve heard so much about you. How you learned Sanskrit from temple rubbings while you were a girl. That you read fluently in Pali and Khmer.” Irene could not hide her envy, for the only other language she knew was French. “I want you to translate the scrolls for me. I want you to tell me what happened to the Khmer Empire.” Her fingers clenched the balcony railing. “We will be the first Westerners to know.”
“When I was a child,” Simone said, “I wrote stories about how I was going to discover new temples. My father thought I should be a novelist. I wrote the lectures I would one day present to geographical societies around the globe, and I even designed the dress I would wear on my tour. It would be made of Khmer silk, with ivory buttons carved into the shape of the rosettes that are found on the temple walls.”
The wistful moan of a conch horn rose from a junk down on the river. Irene’s beloved job was gone. Her father was dead not even a year, and Henry Simms—the man who had sent her on this quest—was dying. Soon she would have no one left, no one who understood her. But she felt this woman understood. “Then you will come with me?”
Simone looked out at Roger, slouched on Anne’s old chaise, his shoes digging insolently into a red velvet bolster. He raised his glass in the direction of the balcony. She said, “I’m sorry, Irene.”
“What do you mean?”
“You cannot begin to know how sorry I am.”
“Sorry about what?”
“I can’t go. Not now.” Disgusted, Simone said, “Especially not now. Not on the eve of my husband’s revolution.”
“But you sailed all the way to France to raise money for the strikes. I’m authorized to offer you fifty thousand dollars, but I can get more. Name your price.”
“If only this were about money.”
“Fifty thousand dollars is not only money. It’s a fortune.”
“I told you what happened on the ship. Roger will not let me leave him right now. He’s on the cusp of making history.”
“How long will it take?”
Simone tossed the fan on the chair beside her. “Irene, this is a revolution, not a barroom brawl. Sun Yat-sen is dead, and the parties are splintering. The power struggles alone are enough to drive Roger mad, and if he goes any madder than he already is—”
“You want this revolution more than you want the scrolls?” Irene asked. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“What I want has not mattered for a long time.” Quickly, Simone walked back into the apartment.
Simone had called Angkor Wat holy. She called her husband’s revolution hypocritical.
“Wait,” Irene said. “I don’t understand.”
But rather than explain, Simone returned to Roger, perching on the arm of his chair and affectionately setting one hand on the nape of his neck.
The night seemed to shift, as if Shanghai were settling down into its foundation. A fitful cool struggled to press in from the distant East China Sea. Irene heard propellers thrashing against the black Whangpoo River. And she wondered what in the hell had just happened, while below in the dark a melon had been split, its sweetness clinging to the humid air.