The Atlas of Forgotten Places: A Novel by Jenny D. Williams

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Can you tell Aunt Sabine what you’re doing? Lily looks up defiantly, squinting. I’m giving food to hungry people, she says. And then I’m going to fly on an airplane and never come back.

 

Sabine Hardt is retired from aid work, now living back home in Germany when she finds out her American niece Lily has disappeared in Uganda. When she doesn’t come home as scheduled, fear gnaws at her gut. Not content to sit around waiting for others to search, in a place where there is no funding for such interest in disappearances, Sabine must return to the very place that haunts her memories. Who better than Sabine to deal with the locals, to hunt down the information and places a veteran of such aid work like her self can navigate? Her life path will join Rose’s. Rose Akula lived through the horrors of the Lord’s Resistance Army, shunned by her own people upon her return, at turns frightened, jealous, hurt when her lover Ocen vanishes, both Rose and Sabine must unite to chase the trail of their loved ones. Is it possible they were both entangled in something dangerous? Could Ocen and Lily have meant something to each other? Rose is living with the disturbing memories of her time with the LRA, left wounded physically and mentally. Her story is by far the richest and most moving. Her longing for Ocen drives her to face dangerous forces again.

This novel isn’t just about family bonds, it takes the idealism aid workers begin with and shows how it morphs, clashing with the reality of the country and it’s people. Just how do good people become just as hardened and blind to atrocities as the very natives they are there to ‘save’ and ‘help’. The victims too aren’t always welcomed back with love and compassion but met with suspicion and shamed. It’s easy to peer into other cultures and see what needs to be fixed, when you are distanced from the real horrors. It’s too easy also to walk into danger, focused so much on doing what you feel is just, and morally right. What captivated me most are the perspectives of each character, because it’s like separate worlds.

It’s a story full of heart, courage and also harsh realities. I was engaged most by Rose’s story- taken as a young girl by the LRA and the grief that lives inside for everything that happened, that she returns to darkness and horror just to try and help Ocen. I am not sure we could all be so brave. Sabine’s memories, the things she learned about herself during her time as an aid worker is crushingly moving- facing the ugliness and apathy that she hadn’t realized she was capable of is one of the truest things I’ve read about the flip said of a charitable nature, because in the end we are human beings, flawed and weak.

Publication Date: July 11, 2017

St. Martin’s Press

Thomas Dunne Books

 

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