Book Review: The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review and wrote this review for BookReporter.com.
Because of my connection with Uganda, I was immediately interested in THE ATLAS OF FORGOTTEN PLACES. Our family has hosted and sponsored children, helped raise money to build a medical center in Kampala, Uganda and in March, I traveled to Uganda. In THE ATLAS OF FORGOTTEN PLACES, Jenny D. Williams, expertly captures the feeling of being in Uganda. I could feel the heat and red dust, hear the sounds of the bodas (motorbikes) and see the piles of fruit for sale on the roadsides, the women cooking outdoors.
A book that makes the reader ponder and evaluate is a gift, and we receive that in THE ATLAS OF FORGOTTEN PLACES. This is a well-crafted historical fiction novel that, among other things, challenges Western ideas of humanitarian work and involvement in other nation’s affairs. “This was the great irony of humanitarian work, … it required you to dehumanize the very people whose lives you were trying to better.”
Coming from an author who has experienced and lived in the world of humanitarian aid work, I found Williams’ observations compelling: “… Museveni’s shortcomings were given a blind eye by Western powers. And suddenly it was this distant, pale specter of the West that loomed sharper and more horrifying than anything else. Those unbloodied hands gesturing vaguely around long, polished tables, claiming the role of savior one minute and ushering in new waves of calculated, convenient complicities the next.” So is it good or bad to help? It’s clearly not that straightforward or simple.
The story follows Sabine and Rose. Sabine is a former aid worker who spent eighteen years in Africa, she travels back to Uganda to find her niece, Lily, who has gone missing and Rose is a Ugandan woman who was captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels then later escapes and tries to reintegrate into her tribe. The two women have a common goal of finding Lily and Rose’s love, Ocen, who they discover are together. Along with Christoph, an aid worker, the trio follows Lily and Ocen’s trail into danger and the rebel war zone. The story is full of tension and compassion, love and friendship, exploration and mystery.
American awareness of news and life in other countries, especially on the African continent, tends to be limited. While I knew a bit about the Ugandan conflict between Joseph Kony and his rebels, and the American-backed Museveni, in reading THE ATLAS OF FORGOTTEN PLACES, I better understand the complexities and complications of the situation. Questions of right and wrong are blurred and the story challenges the reader to face the uncomfortable idea of why white lives are valued above African lives. Why would Lily’s disappearance be more valid, more important, than Ocen’s disappearance?
As I sat on the beach reading this book, I was struck by Williams question: “Memories from before, when life was uncomplicated. Did that life exist for anyone, anywhere?” Right at this moment, as I live that uncomplicated, calm, contented existence, in many places around the world, countless people are suffering, longing for peace and safety.
Thinking of Lily’s stepfather back home in Denver, I was frustrated that Sabine didn’t keep him more in the loop. She justified not calling him by thinking it would be kinder to call when she had more information, but as a parent, (and Sabine is not a mother) I couldn’t help but think of him home worrying, craving any information at all, wanting to know every single detail, every possible lead. I wished Sabine had been more forthcoming with him so they could work more effectively as a team to find Lily, but like in real life, we can’t always understand or agree with other people’s decisions.
I highly recommend this debut novel and look forward to future work by this author. I found myself underlining and starring beautiful phrases in THE ATLAS OF FORGOTTEN PLACES. As a writer, I appreciate a gorgeous image, a well-crafted sentence and Williams delivers on a well-written book and a gripping story.