Atonement is one of the most difficult things for people to achieve, more so when the person trying to atone is the only one who can forgive. In The Atlas of Forgotten Places, by Jenny D. Williams, several of the main characters are seeking to atone for their own crimes or the crimes of their family members—and they’re trying to do so in the middle of an active war zone as the Ugandan army is routing out members of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The emotional and physical conflicts in this book make for a nail-biting reading experience. Worse, it doesn’t follow the tropes of thrillers, so we don’t know until the very end if the protagonists live or not; there are no guarantees in The Atlas of Forgotten Places.
Sabine Hardt, a former aide worker from Germany, and Rose Akulu, a translator and transcriptionist who was once a captive of the LRA, take turns narrating the novel. Both are seeking someone they lost. In Sabine’s case, she’s looking for her niece after Lily failed to make her flight back to the States from Kampala. Rose is trying to find her lover, Ocen, who disappeared with Lily sometime in the weeks before Christmas, 2008. For the first third of The Atlas for Forgotten Places, the two women work separately to find their lost loved ones. After Sabine meets Rose’s boss, the two women strike a truce and team up to follow the faint trail Lily left behind.
While the two women try to find their lost ones, they each take time to reflect on what brought them to this place and this time: betrayals, lies, atonement. Both Rose and Sabine have had hard lives. In Rose’s case, the hardness came partly from her abduction and years with the LRA and partly from the guilt and grief she’s carried ever since. Sabine became an aide worker because of something that her grandfather did—to say more would spoil the revelation. Now she’s trying to find her niece in part because she wasn’t very supportive of Lily while Lily did her own stint of aide work.
The reflectiveness and uncertainty of The Atlas of Forgotten Places—along with the setting—make for a thriller elevated above the typical emotional shallowness of the genre. It touches on the sorrow and anger that a long civil war causes, the mad stubbornness of the men who wage that war, the seeming futility of aide work, and self-imposed quests for atonement. The Atlas of Forgotten Places refuses the easy path, right to its very last pages.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 July 2017.