Advance Review: Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett

Cover of Unruly PlacesUnruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett (on Amazon) examines all the places that elude our normal categorization of place, the ones that do not tidily fit into expected boundaries, everything from traffic islands to floating islands; uninhabited, meticulously maintained cities designed to impress outsiders, bombed to prevent anyone’s return, or destroyed by radioactive fallout. He roughly categorizes the places by type, grouping them under headings: “Lost Places,” “Hidden Geographies,” “No Man’s Lands”, Dead Cities,” “Spaces of Exception,” “Enclaves and Breakaway Nations,” “Floating Islands,” and “Ephemeral Places.” Each category has a number of places under it, sometimes beautiful, sometimes devastated, and Bonnett thus anchors his ideas in specifics.

Reading Unruly Places is a chance to explore unexpected parts of the world, places most readers spend little time thinking about. It’s the chance to have a knowledgeable guide who cares about place in general and about these places in particular. Bonnett is presenting a philosophy of place here, and will express his views frequently and openly.

Bonnett has visited many of the places he writes about and often describes them. There are no pictures, however, outside of the hand-drawn maps, and I frequently found myself wishing that there were more opportunities to see these places. It’s great to hear about “The Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion,” the Sicilian town of Giarre, full of grandiose, unfinished building projects, trying to market the incompletion as a tourist attraction, a place where Bonnett “occasionally found it difficult to tell the complete and incomplete town apart.” Smaller places like the corner of Heaton Park where he searches for a fox den in the undergrowth, finding “a scrabbled, gloomy entrance about a food across,” and concluding it must be abandoned. All of this description makes one want to see the places all the more, if only through images.

Unruly Places is , for the most part, a sobering look at our relationship to place. Bonnet asserts that we have largely lost our sense of the importance of place, sometimes actively denying it, and the ignorance leads to our disconnect from the world and from those actively displaced peoples who have no land to call their own. There are brighter moments, as in the segment on Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog where a Dutch and a Belgian village lie intertwined, a mass of ancient borders, to the complete contentment of the inhabitants. There is also the Nowhere Festival in Spain, one of many festival villages where volunteers build “a temporary utopia,” places apart where “whole communities take shape out of nothing,” the people bound together for a time by shared interests. On the whole, however, Unruly Places is a work on loss and an plea to start reclaiming our love of place and thus a part of ourselves.

Unruly Places is not a light read. It is an eye-opening exploration that offers a number of chances to say “I never thought of that!” Recommended for the geographically curious and those who like to ponder life’s mysteries.

Publication Information:
Hardcover, 288 pages
Expected publication: July 8th 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 054410157X (ISBN13: 9780544101579)

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