Review published on May 8, 2017.
Thomas H. Cook, a crime writer from Fort Payne, Alabama, now lives in Los Angeles. His 30+ previous books are fiction, but in this out-of-the-ordinary travel memoir he blends personal experience and history to tell of the ‘dark places’ he’s drawn to visiting. He traces his interest in sites of historical tragedy back to his childhood, when his father, a Second World War veteran, took him to see drowned corpses and the aftermath of a natural disaster. Growing up in the segregated South also made him particularly sensitive to ethnic violence: “one should suffer for having done something, not for having been born something,” he feels.
In 28 chapters that jump around in chronological order, Cook chronicles journeys he’s made to places associated with war, massacres, doomed lovers, suicides and other evidence of human suffering. Some are well known – Lourdes, Auschwitz, Verdun and Ground Zero – while others, like a Hawaiian leper colony and the hideaway of a fifteenth-century serial killer, require a bit more background. In Buenos Aires he sees the Plaza de Mayo, where the mothers of the disappeared still keep vigil; in Vietnam and Cambodia he marvels at the scale of politically driven atrocities. Again and again he is struck by “humanity as a vast tableau of woundedness and need” on one hand and “the utterly fiendish ways in which [suffering] was inflicted” on the other; the active capacity for evil versus the weight of passive anguish.
Although it considers more familiar historical incidents, the chapter on Okinawa and Hiroshima is among the book’s highlights. Cook’s excellent descriptions of the mass suicide rooms where the Japanese retreated as the Americans approached and the atomic bomb was dropped bring history to vibrant life. For him, the simplicity of Hiroshima’s Peace Museum and memorial park “convey the grim bedazzlement of both the event itself, how confusion must have reigned in the immediate aftermath of unprecedented horror, and the astonishing capacity of human beings to deal with whatever befalls them.”
But the most memorable chapter of all is one in which suffering comes home to the author in a personal way. He opens it with a visit to Martha’s Vineyard, where the last heath hen was seen in 1932. The species was the subject of one of America’s earliest conservation efforts, but fires, domestic cats and cars were formidable foes for this ground-nesting bird. Cook made this particular trip alone because his wife and usual travel partner, Susan Terner, was experiencing some back pain. They soon learned that this was due to the metastatic recurrence of her breast cancer; she would die at age 62 in December 2014. “Like that fabled bird, Susan was gone,” he writes. “She had been one of a kind. And now she was extinct.”
This personal bereavement caused him to temporarily question the cathartic benefit of visiting dark places “when you have reached the tragic shore within you.” Ultimately, though, he argues that there is value in remembering what happened at these sites, for by doing so we “drain triviality” from our travelling and from the lives that were lost. Perhaps inevitably, the book feels a little scattered: there are so many different places, so many different tragic chapters of history. It can be a challenge to see how they all fit together.
What Cook finally seems to land on, though, is what Samuel Beckett wrote in The Unnamable: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” In other words, suffering is essential to human nature and experience, and acknowledging that means acknowledging what we all share. This is by no means your average travel book and it won’t suit those who seek high adventure and/or tropical escapism from their reading. Instead, it’s a meditative and often melancholy picture of humanity at its best and worst.
Rebecca Foster 4/4
Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Travel to the Darkest Places on Earth by Thomas H. Cook
Quercus 9781849163262 hbk Apr 2017
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