The Atlas of Forgotten Places: A Novel
- By Jenny D. Williams
- Thomas Dunne Books
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Julie Christine Johnson
- July 23, 2017
A moving, fictionalized account of real-life horrors in Africa.
In late 2008 and early 2009, years before the Western world became caught up in the horror of young schoolgirls kidnapped and enslaved by Boko Haram militants in northern Nigeria, nearly 200 children were abducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
These children were pawns in a cross-border fight between Ugandan rebels, known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and military forces from Uganda, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Into this real-life volatile conflict walks character Lily Bennett, a young American woman volunteering for an aid agency in Uganda. Her subsequent disappearance in the weeks before these abductions, and an ensuing series of deadly attacks by the LRA known as the Christmas massacres, unites three individuals in a dangerous mission.
Rippling with political and emotional tension, The Atlas of Forgotten Places takes us along this harrowing journey.
Lily’s aunt, Sabine Hardt, an aid worker with years of experience throughout the African continent, is burned out and jaded. Despairing of ever making a difference, Sabine abandons her work in Africa and returns to her native Germany, where she works at an animal shelter. But when Lily’s stepfather sends word Lily was not on her scheduled flight home, Sabine doesn’t hesitate to return to the very place where she feared she lost her soul.
Back in Uganda, Sabine encounters Christoph, a Swiss anthropologist, and his research assistant, Rose Akulu, and enlists their aid in her search for her niece. Rose’s story becomes entwined with Sabine’s, for she, too, is searching for the disappeared — her lover, Ocen.
Rose’s composed exterior belies the war in her heart: she has a past with the Lord’s Resistance Army she cannot speak of, a past that has all but ostracized her from her community. Her physical scars cause others to look away in horror; her emotional scars may never heal.
As the three follow the few traces Lily left behind, the possible reasons for her disappearance begin to emerge and none offers the searchers hope. Was she following the illegal ivory trade exploited by the LRA to fund their resistance activities? Had she crossed the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is unlikely anyone on a rescue mission will be allowed to go? And in Rose’s secret agony — when it becomes clear that Lily and Ocen disappeared together — lives the question: Were Lily and Rose’s lover more than friends?
The Atlas of Forgotten Places is riveting in plot and profound in portrait. Author Jenny D. Williams has created characters the reader will bond with immediately and a narrative that grips the imagination with a vital quest across the boundaries of countries and of the heart.
This is an extraordinary debut, written with a masterful sense of plot and pacing and a keen understanding of the thorny world of western intervention in the developing world. Her prose calls to mind the exquisite Francesca Marciano — another contemporary Western writer with personal experience in Africa — with its clarity, precision, and beauty.
Readers of Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love or White Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse will add The Atlas of Forgotten Places to their canon of modern literature about Africa that explores culture beyond artificial political borders and expands our understanding of a continent.
Eight years after the kidnapping of the children in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the International Criminal Court began hearing arguments against one of the LRA’s senior commanders charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to the New York Times, “The United Nations estimates that between 1987 and 2012, the Lord’s Resistance Army killed more than 100,000 people, kidnapped between 60,000 and 100,000 children and forced more than 2.5 million people to flee their homes in Uganda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic.”
The Atlas of Forgotten Places takes us to a place and into a conflict that few in the comfortable Western world know of or understand, and holds us fast with a stunning combination of intrigue and despair, redemption and love.
Julie Christine Johnson is the award-winning author of In Another Life (Sourcebooks, February 2016) and the forthcoming The Crows of Beara (Ashland Creek Press, September 2017). She is also the author of numerous short stories and essays. Julie currently resides in Port Townsend, WA, where she leads writing workshops, is a freelance fiction editor, and manages the tasting rooms for one of Washington State’s newest wineries.