Fascinating, then, to read Cook’s own memoir of travel to dark places, and to discover the reasons for his compulsion to unearth buried traumasIt starts – perhaps inevitably – with his father, a man prone to seeking out ‘the bizarre disarrangement of familiar objects’: collapsed bridges, or tractors dumped upside down by storms. The young Cook, accompanying his parent on these expeditions, learned from them ‘the utter indifference of nature’, and this world view seems never to have left him.
Nevertheless, he finds that dark places can be a source of celebration, and often have the mysterious power of overcoming their own darkness: whether visiting ‘Bluebeard’s castle’ at Machecoul, the home of Gilles de Rais, history’s first recorded serial killer, or the Aokigahara forest in Japan and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco – the two most ‘popular’ suicide sites on the planet – he finds crumbs of consolation, usually in the people he encounters. This, it is true, is not always because of their kindness: irritated by the noisy frivolity of a group of students while visiting Verdun, he ultimately decides that those who died there, equally young, would have looked kindly on those not robbed of their youth
There are, though, limits. At the leper colony in Kalaupapa, once ‘the most infamous place on Earth’, he decides that his presence there is ‘unjustifiable voyeurism’; and, perhaps inevitably, the only bleak comfort he discovers at Auschwitz is ‘that if no malignant force imposes its will upon him, a man will probably help a stranger find his way.’ A fascinating, troubling memoir from a fine writer.