October 01, 2017

The Atlas of Forgotten Places - Jenny D. Williams

Thomas Dunne Books, July 11, 2017.

Five Stars

The Atlas of Forgotten Places is a surprising, incredible novel that really has it all – a thrilling, adventurous narrative, strong and powerful characters, and a plot entwining historical, political and current events. Most of all, it is an exploration of family, friendship, and the lengths we will go to protect our loved ones –  and how that love unites us across borders.

The novel is narrated by two very different women, brought together in their search for the people they love – especially when they learn that those two people may have gone missing together. Sabine Hardt was an aid worker in Africa for many years, until a tragic event made her doubt her ability to make a difference in the world. She retreated to a quiet life in her native Germany, watching from a distance as her American niece Lily takes her place in Uganda. Envisioning a future of helping people, Lily is wide-eyed and optimistic in her emails to her aunt – until she suddenly disappears on her way home to America. Sabine makes the inevitable trip to Uganda to search for Lily, bringing back surprising memories of her past.

While tracking Lily’s movements, Sabine meets Rose Akulu, a young Ugandan woman working with the American aid workers, offering support to the victims of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Rose herself was kidnapped by the LRA as a child – she eventually escaped, under circumstances that are slowly revealed, and returned to her village with haunting memories and a missing arm. Members of the LRA who return home are shunned by their former friends and family, and Rose was only able to find solace in her boyfriend Ocen, whose brother was also taken by the LRA. Now Ocen has disappeared too, and the evidence suggests that he may be with Lily.

Sabine and Rose do not completely trust each other, but with the help of relief worker and mutual friend Christoph, the two women are willing to sacrifice everything to find Lily and Ocen. As an American girl, Lily’s disappearance is publicized by the western media – meanwhile, Rose worries that Ocen will be collateral damage in the search for Lily. Williams does an impressive job of creating complicated, emotionally-charged characters who realistically reflect the situation in Uganda – white aid workers are attempting to do good, helping people during a time of civil war, but their role in Africa becomes an echo of the colonialism that caused these issues in the first place.

Williams has obviously spent time in Uganda, and the setting comes alive in a real and assured way. The novel is written in clean, straightforward prose that clearly reflects the complex political situation in Uganda – there is no awkwardly inserted exposition about the war, but instead it is explained as it is relevant to the scenes and characters. There are also no simple explanations of good vs. evil here – when children are kidnapped and forced to kill, and then ostracized by their families when they return, we are forced to witness the true extent of human cruelty. And there is no escape into fiction, as this novel is based on real-world, current events that we cannot look away from.

Sabine and Rose each have distinct voices and perspectives on the situation around them – neither one is particularly likeable, and yet as their backstories are revealed, both are sympathetic and real. Although these women come from extremely different circumstances, they are more similar than they realize. And while the ending of the novel is sudden and unresolved, it is certainly hopeful – it leaves room for many possible outcomes, including the hope for a future in which we can be united across borders to prevent child soldiers and the men who create them. Most of all, there is hope for people like Rose, whose childhood was taken from her, and yet she emerged from the jungle willing to help others discover a better way of life.

I received this book from Thomas Dunne Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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