Book review – Tragic Shores – “A Memoir of Dark Travels”

One of the nice things about working with Tina & Tony at TripFiction is their access to publishers, and books I might not normally read.

Tina passed me a copy of Tragic Shores – A Memoir of Dark Travel – for review. Written by Thomas H Cook, this haunting collection of episodic travel stories is published by Quercus, and is the first work of non-fiction from this prolific crime writer.

Publisher’s “blurb”:

Thomas Cook has always been drawn to dark places, for the powerful emotions they evoke and for what we can learn from them. These lessons are often unexpected and sometimes profoundly intimate, but they are never straightforward.

With his wife and daughter, Cook travels across the globe in search of darkness – from Lourdes to Ghana, from San Francisco to Verdun, from the monumental, mechanised horror of Auschwitz to the intimate personal grief of a shrine to dead infants in Kamukura, Japan. Along the way he reflects on what these sites may teach us, not only about human history, but about our own personal histories.

During the course of a lifetime of travelling to some of earth’s most tragic shores, from the leper colony on Molokai to ground zero at Hiroshima, he finds not darkness alone, but a light that can illuminate the darkness within each of us. Written in vivid prose, this is at once a personal memoir of exploration (both external and internal), and a strangely heartening look at the radiance that may be found at the very heart of darkness.

Cook’s writing is profound in its content, and almost poetic in style. His use of tone and language force you to think deeply about these dark places he has visited over the years. It is no surprise to learn that he studied philosophy at Columbia University, before teaching English and History.

The way he links some of the Tragic Shores with others in the book, or with parallel events in life, is never contrived but clearly contemplated with gravitas and empathy.

Excerpt from The Forest and The Bridge:

But there are also public areas that attract private suicides, and two of these, the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mount Fuji and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, have been officially designated as the second and first most “popular” suicide sites on earth.

True, many suicides are rash reactions to some moment of grief and anguish or disappointment, one that might well have passed, and its passing, opened to a fuller, or at least more endurable life, and these we must do everything we can to prevent. But others are the product of a protracted ordeal, and it is these, if we cannot prevent them, that we must judge more tenderly, as I found myself doing that morning.

For it seemed to me that here, on this bridge, a final evaluation had been made, and a final judgement rendered, one that utterly rejected my long, trivial list of why a given human being should fine reason to live. For what is food when one no longer cares to taste? What is music when one no longer cares to hear? What is work when one no longer sees its purpose? What is the value of your life if it has grown so torturous that neither the fear of pain nor the fear of death can hinder you from taking it?

But from the writer’s experiences and thoughts on his own travels to dark places through history comes light, and hope. And he weaves his deeply personal – and touching – narrative thread from the same loom as others sowed fear, hatred, war and torture.

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