Saturday, 3 June 2017


Note: This review appeared last week, in a somewhat different form, in the TLS. It had been shortened from the original edited version, where it had been improved greatly by some reordering and a change of focus, which I appreciated greatly, because this is a deeply-layered book that provokes often conflicting reactions. The printed piece is locked behind the TLS paywall; I recommend the new-look paper if you are interested. But I thought I would offer you the chance to chance my original version, improved by sensitive editing, which I think get further into and closer to the heart of a moving book.
Thomas H. Cook is one of the finest crime writers in the world. His protagonists tend to be observers; his books are often set in the world of their memory, dealing with the dead and the past. Stories tend to become clearer gradually, like a photograph developing, and his style, while displaying gothic overtones, is measured and straightforward. “My characters are fighting inevitability”, he told me once in an interview. “The sense that life is not designed to live up to our imaginations. Instead it’s incredibly cruel.” There is an autobiographical touch; in two of his novels, characters are writers who have specialized in travel to dark places. One of them is a man who has lost his son, kidnapped as he waited in the rain for his father to pick him up from school; the father, caught up in his writing, had forgotten the time.
Tragic Shores begins with a prologue, Cook's visit to Alcazar, where in 1936 the commander of the fortress refused to surrender to Republican forces, then listened over a telephone as the commander of those forces murdered his son. Later in the book, Cook tells the story of waiting in the rain for his mother to collect him after school. He refuses the offer of a lift from the mother of a classmate. 'Get in, Tommy, I won't hurt you,' the woman says. 'That's what they all say,' the young Cook replies.

On the surface, this is a journal of “dark travel”, to places where human cruelty and tragedy have left their marks, where they remain a living presence and have not, as Cook puts it, “retreated into history”. It proceeds from Lourdes to Auschwitz; from the leper colony at Kalaupapa to Hiroshima; from Cambodia’s Year Zero to New York’s Ground Zero; from New Echota, capital of the Cherokee nation before the Trail of Tears, to the site of massacres in Ghana; from Machecoul in Northern France, where Gilles de Rais, the West’s first recorded serial killer, preyed on local youths in the fifteenth century, to the cliffs of Okinawa from which Japanese parents threw their children, then followed them to their deaths, rather than face the atrocities they believed the Americans would visit upon them. At Verdun, being told “no one comes here anymore”, Cook ponders the “well of forgetfulness” into which so many lost lives have sunk, and attempts to pull those memories back into the light.
It is not schadenfreude; he does not seek comfort from the fact that the tragedies visited on others have somehow passed him by. Yet, this might seem an unattractive basis for a travel book. Indeed, much of the description can seem mundane in the face of such overwhelming emotion. Cook, his wife Susan and their daughter Justine try bravely to become travellers absorbing new places, rather than tourists carrying their own worlds with them. But many of these sites rest uneasily with the tourist trade; watching the mothers of Cinco de Mayo in Buenos Aires disperse after their weekly demonstration for their “disappeared” relatives is not the only scene that provokes a sense of disconnection.. But the more everyday the picture, the more intensely the reader perceives Cook’s real intent, which is easy to miss even though he states it clearly in the first line of his prologue: “I have come to thank dark places for the light they bring to life”.
After touring a small hall dedicated to the Apprentice Boys of Derry commemorating the siege of the city in 1688–9, and the origins of the staunchly Unionist Protestant association, his guide offers a hand, saying, “we’re not bad people”. When Cook takes the hand, responding “most people aren’t bad”, it sounds like a wistful warning, recalling his mother's long-ago advice. This is the central dilemma with which Cook wrestles, the reason why he immerses himself in the darkness, the question of why, if most people are not bad, so much evil seems to define their lives.
Oddly enough, in this worldwide compendium of human misery, a hint of an answer comes from a tragedy visited on birds. It is perhaps the saddest tale in the book, sad because of its seeming inevitability. The extinction of the heath hen on Martha’s Vineyard followed, not evil, but the requiste callousess of humans, when a century ago a forest fire destroyed the preserve in which they had been protected from human agency. Most of the female birds died protecting the nests they would not abandon; the last male disappeared a few years later in 1932. His disappearance speaks to a sense of selflessness with which Cook, with a novelist’s sense of climax, intended to end his book.
But soon after his visit to Martha's Vineyard, his wife took ill. Susan Terner died before this book was finished. Before she died, she admonished Cook to remember the “value of knowing”, and though the heath hens had brought the book to conclusion, he still needed to explain what that knowledge meant.
The Cooks had visited the tomb of Abelard and Héloïse in Père Lachaise, the graves of Elvira Madigan and Sixten Sparre in Landet, Denmark; two sets of lovers who ended their own lives when faced with society's refusal to allow them their loves. But that sense of despair finds contrast at the jumping point on the Golden Gate Bridge, where thousands of suicides have taken their last steps, when a passerby seems pleased and relieved to see him walking back from the spot. In that man's relief, Cook senses “life’s ultimate gimmick”, the “selfless, anonymous care” that persuades humans to live. It is altruism, an engrained instinct to protect the wider nest. That is the light which the dark places have revealed. Tragic Shores is not tragic at all. It is a love story, and a hymn to our ability to go on, in the face of the ultimate darkness.
Tragic Shores by Thomas H. Cook
Quercus, £20.00, ISBN 9781849163262

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