The Atlas Of Forgotten Places is perhaps the most satisfying novel that I have ever read. It is also the best literary companion I have ever had.
Jenny D Williams is a writer of beautiful poetic prose. She has published poetry and you can tell. She has a genius for a descriptive phrase and her detail is meticulous, whether a room or a landscape or a character. She creates characters that you soon feel have come friends. The are authentic and warm, complex and alive. You grow to like them, to know them, to believe in them.
The plot in this, her very first novel, is clever and utterly gripping. From the first page you want to follow, to turn the next page, to actually read the last page but you never do because you know that you are into a book that will tantalise and tease and sneak up and surprise.
You can tell that I loved it.
Now, let me get subjective. On no account let the subjective side of my review cause you to think that this is a book is only for Stockman. I cannot recommend The Atlas Of Forgotten Places enough.
The novel is set in north Uganda, the place where I actually read it. It starts in Kitgum but to my delight Arua, where I have spent time every summer for the last few years, gets a mention on page 22. Later the story actually stops off in Arua, in a hotel I know well, though too up market for a man like me to stay in anymore. I love reading about the country I am in. That Williams’ book is set in Uganda would have been enough... BUT in my town!
The Atlas… actually became a friend on my sabbatical. The Stockmans were spending six weeks in Africa and adjusting to Ugandan life had its challenges. I was able to relate to Jenny’s characters of Sabine and Christoph and they gave me some strange strength for living outside my comfort zone. I was able to imagine them in my room, on the roads, walking around me.
Williams sets her story at the end of 2008. Kitgum has been traumatised by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Liberation Army for decades but by then the LRA were exiled in the forests of Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Rose, one of the main characters, was abducted as a young girl and lost her arm before escaping from the LRA and finding her way home. It was not an easy re-integration.
In 2008 Ugandan, DR Congolese and Southern Sudanese forces launched Operation Lightning Thunder against Kony and the LRA in Garamba. Williams skilfully takes us right into the heart of this real political situation and the violence of it but, amazingly, focuses us on individuals, humanising them in the centre of a violent vortex of history.
In the end the book is not about politics or war. This is a book about the forgotten places within us all. It is a book about finding your loved one who has gone missing, as Sabine and Rose are attempting to do, but it is also about finding yourself while you are doing that. It is the blessing of yourself being transformed as you try to change the world. The whole purpose of my sabbatical in Uganda!
It throws up fascinating questions about belief and making a difference, about forgiveness and redemption. It asks about the white man’s place in the transformation of an African nation that needs transformed. It asked me what I was doing here and who I was finding in the forgotten places of myself as I attempted to help others find their way in this big vast and complex world.
I am so sorry that it is finished. It is like my companions have gone home and left me... but left me stronger for the time together!