Tragic Shores is the first non-fiction title by Thomas H Cook, a prolific crime and suspense novelist. It is a travel memoir with a difference, an account of the author’s visits to “dark places”, places where sometimes unimaginable levels of human brutality and suffering have occurred. But the purpose is not to invoke misery: it is a quest to find light amid the darkness.
Travelling with his wife, and sometimes his daughter, Cook visited more than thirty countries over a period of many years, seeking out the sites of suffering rather than more conventional tourist destinations. He went to well-known sites like Auschwitz and barely known ones such as the former Cherokee lands of New Echota. He dug deep into places like the Place de Grève in Paris, whose sombre history is overlooked by modern day tourists. And sometimes a place led him to reflect on a particular subject, for instance the suicides from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Everywhere he went, he tried to pull meaning from his experience, often coming to surprising conclusions.
I have to confess at this point that I rarely visit dark places when I travel. I feel that there is a fine line between experience and voyeurism, and I am uneasy about tragic places becoming tourist attractions. We all need to understand the atrocities of our shared past, but I prefer to read, and think, on my own rather than to participate in a collective experience. However, every traveller is different, and we all find meaning in different places. I found Tragic Shores persuasive in its message. It was beautifully written, challenging and always thought provoking.
“I have come to thank dark places for the light they bring to life,” the author begins, and he concludes that “the homage we pay to dark places ennobles and enriches us”. I was bound to agree with him that understanding the true nature of a place is an antidote to superficiality. And there was something life-affirming about many of his descriptions, like the transcendence of hope over suffering at Lourdes.
Ultimately, this book seems to say, if you travel with an open mind there will be lessons to be learnt. Read it, and decide for yourself.
Tragic Shores: A Memoir Of Dark Travel by Thomas H Cook is published by Quercus, 2017, 978-1849163262