The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams

atlasI was pretty much glued to this book while I was reading it.  It’s both suspenseful and thoughtful, and provides detailed information about a country that most Americans know little about. 

Williams, a former aid worker in Uganda, tells the story from two perspectives.  Sabine is a German woman who has spent most of her adult life as an aid worker in various countries.  Rose is a young Ugandan woman who was abducted as a teen by the LRA (the Lord’s Resistance Army) and forced to become a soldier, a wife, and a mother. 

In December 2008, Sabine returns to Uganda when her niece Lily, who is volunteering for six months after college, goes missing.  Lily completed her service, left a note that said she’ll be “off the grid” for a few weeks, and fails to show up for her flight back to the U.S.  Sabine is a devoted aunt who feels she hasn’t done nearly enough for her niece (I know that feeling) and she well knows the dangers Lily might face.

Similar to Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land, this is really a detective story, set in a historical context.  Everyone Sabine talks to gives her a slightly new clue to where her niece might have gone, and why.   It’s both a journey story and a mystery, but its strength is how Williams adds personal growth for her characters as well.  Sabine, for example, must come to terms with the reason she left aid work (and ultimately, the reason she got into aid work).  Rose must find a way to accept what she was forced to do by the LRA.  Both of them are seeking forgiveness and absolution.  The difference between them, however, is that Rose is rejected by her own community (the Acholi) and is seen as a traitor, not as someone who was victimized.  Consequently she’s told very few people what she endured, even the handful of people she’s close to. 

It will not surprise you that Sabine is the more fleshed out of the two characters, given Williams’ own experiences, but Williams gives both characters distinct voices that seem true to their vastly different cultures and experiences (I say “seem” because I wouldn’t know if either of them truly reflect Acholi or German cultures). 

My Reading Around the World challenge has made me conscious of when I’m reading a book by a native of a country versus a visitor.  Williams is white, and lived in Uganda for some time as an aid worker, but certainly is not a true insider.  I was a little worried that this book might downplay Rose’s story and focus too much on Lily and Sabine.  It does, a bit, but Williams takes numerous opportunities to show the reader how these women are treated very differently due to race and nationality, and how the authorities are anxious to help when an American life is at stake but pay little attention to the lives of native Ugandans. 

I almost went into the Peace Corps myself, although ultimately student loans and a good job kept me from going.  If I’m being honest, I don’t know that I would have had the nerve to go, or if I would have done a good job.  I’ll always wonder about that.  So reading this story was interesting for me on a personal level as well, although I did find myself frustrated with Lily’s apparent naivete.

This is an extremely strong debut novel.  It’s well paced with interesting characters and story, and rich historical detail.  In many ways I liked it more than Kostova’s novel about Bulgaria, because the clues weren’t great big revelations but were often more subtle, and because where Kostova took us out of the modern day story to tell us the history, Williams blended the history into the story.  And finally, where it didn’t make sense for Kostova’s characters to go racing from town to town, in this story, while the journey is far more dangerous, it’s also more understandable.  There were a few times I thought the book would fall into cliché and it didn’t. 

This was a novel where I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed the read, despite its difficult subject matter. Thanks to NetGalley and publisher Thomas Dunne Books for sharing this novel.  The book was published July 11, 2017. 

8 Comments on “The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams

  1. I really like the sound of this, especially that you said it’s a detective story.The premise reminds me of Hum if You Don’t Know the Words which I recently finished and enjoyed

  2. Nice review. I hadn’t heard much at all about this book, so am happy to get some information on it. The Shadow Lands was a DNF for me, but The Atlas of Forgotten Places sounds much better. I think I’d like it!

  3. I also found Rose to be a much more interesting character, though I was intrigued by Sabine. By putting them together in the same book, I think some depth was lost. I would totally have read separate books about each of these women if they could really dig into their lives, regrets, and tough choices.

    • I see your point about Rose, who is very interesting and I wish she was explored more. For Sabine, one of the things I didn’t love about this book was the grandfather story line, which just seemed a bit simplistic. But I did find her life fascinating and I was glad to see a positive female character who isn’t a parent.

      • It sort of read to me like it was backstory to justify Sabine’s decision to become an aide worker–as if she was making up for the sins of the past. It was totally unnecessary.

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  5. Pingback: Best of 2017: Debut Novels | The Book Stop

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