Review: ‘Unruly Places’ is a guide to weird, ruined and wonderful spots

Tombs of the Caliphs are striking symbols of the City of the Dead in Cairo.
(De Agostini / Getty Images)

I’ve been to only three of the “unruly places” featured in Alastair Bonnett’s terrific new book (the City of the Dead in Cairo, the “Time Landscape” in Manhattan, and International Airspace). If that seems a low number, bear in mind that other locations include Pripyat, the town adjacent to Chernobyl; Hobyo, a “feral city” in Somalia run by pirates; the Labyrinth, a series of tunnels under Minneapolis; and a traffic island in Newcastle, Britain.

“Unruly Places” consists of 47 short chapters, each concentrating on a specific location. Bonnett himself has certainly not been to all of them because some exist only temporarily or, in certain cases, not at all.

A professor of social geography at Newcastle University (convenient for that traffic island), Bonnett is a psycho-geographer and a self-described “topophile,” or lover of place. The more curious the place, the greater his love.

However, as he explains in his introduction, he hasn’t chosen the locations in the book because they’re simply “outlandish or spectacular” but because they have the power to “make the world seem a stranger place where discovery and adventure are possible, both nearby and far away.”

And so we’re taken on an awe-inspiring world tour of ruined cities, lost cities, forbidden zones, no-man’s lands, islands made of trash or pumice, islands that appear and disappear. But Bonnett isn’t above investigating more humble places such as Parking Lot E at LAX, or the Hog’s Back Lay-By in Surrey, Britain, a favorite meeting spot for couples seeking sexual adventures with strangers.


Inevitably there’s a “believe it or not” quality to much of this, but it’s backed up by sharp cultural and political analysis. I was surprised to learn, for example, that 95% of the buildings in Mecca have been demolished and replaced in the last two decades. However, this is not done in the name of modernity but of religious dominance. Bonnett tells us that the fabric of the old city showed that Islam had historically been practiced there in a variety of forms. The current Saudi dynasty, having embraced the more puritanical dogmas of Wahhabism, decided that evidence of earlier variations had to be physically erased.

Or consider the Bedouin tribes of the Negev desert whose homes are regularly demolished by Israeli bulldozers, only to be rebuilt by the Bedouins when the demolition crew leaves. The village of Twayil Abu Karwal has been demolished and rebuilt at least 25 times. Bonnett quotes Ilan Yeshurun, a local director of the Israel Land Authority, who justifies the demolitions by saying, “This is not a village. It doesn’t exist on any map.”

Compare and contrast with Sandy Island, which had been appearing on maps since 1872 off the coast of Queensland on the basis of various unreliable or wishful sightings and was only finally declared not to exist in 2012 by an Australian survey team. But here’s a curious thing: Until that year it also appeared on Google maps. We tend to think that because modern maps rely on photographic, satellite and computer imagery that the data is unmediated. But no, the Google cartographers believed the received wisdom and placed Sandy Island on the map because they genuinely thought it was there, just like the most analog, old-school mapmakers.

Some of us might like to believe that the world is shaped by careful planning and good intentions. Bonnett is here to tell us that it’s more often shaped by greed, vanity, folly and what often looks like madness.

The North Koreans, for instance, built Kijong-Dong, a.k.a. Peace Village, at the southern end of the country. By most accounts it’s a “fake” place, where literally the lights are on but nobody’s home. Nobody lives there, the buildings are shells, and yet every evening the lights come on so that when seen from South Korea it gives the impression that things are thriving and prosperous just across the border. The South Koreans saw through this some time ago.

Sometimes the madness looks more like pure evil, as in the case of Agdam, a casualty of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. It was the scene of tens of thousands of deaths and many atrocities until it was abandoned, then systematically blown apart in 1993, so that according to Bonnett it now looks like “a nuclear bomb had just exploded (there).”

Bonnett is more than an armchair traveler, but his information is as likely to come from maps and libraries as it is from primary research. Sometimes this is understandable: a daytrip to Agdam isn’t an option, but there were times when I wished he was a little more intrepid. He sets foot on that Newcastle traffic island but gets spooked after five minutes and leaves, concluding that “this particular island … cannot be imaginatively reclaimed.” He visits the “Archeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion,” a place of unfinished grand building projects, and recounts, “After I visited a few of the chosen remnants they all started to look the same and I gave up.”

In general, however, Bonnett is an excellent guide and literary companion. He wears his learning and his prejudices lightly, leaving the reader to join the geopolitical dots. He succeeds in making the strange familiar and the familiar strange, fully justifying his conclusion that “ordinary places are also extraordinary places; the exotic can be around the corner or right under our feet.”

Nicholson is the author of many books, most recently the novel “The City Under the Skin.”

Unruly Places
Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies

Alastair Bonnett
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 253 pp., $25