Even Darkness Sings: A Journey to the Saddest Places in the World: From Verdun and Saigon to Hiroshima and Ground Zero
by Thomas H. Cook
Pegasus Books, 2018
“I have come to thank dark places for the light they bring to life.” The first line of Thomas H. Cook’s memoir Even Darkness Sings identifies the symbiotic relationship between darkness and light that has defined the author’s decades-long journey into the abyss of some of the world’s saddest places, which range from the familiar to the far-flung.
With neither a hint of voyeurism nor nostalgia, Cook has used his skills as a seasoned crime fiction writer to create an impressive and moving work of debut nonfiction. Even Darkness Sings flows like a novel, each chapter with unique characters, settings and themes described in rich detail. Historical context is judiciously given for each locale to inform readers without bogging them down in minutiae. As a result, even non-history aficionados can engage with, and appreciate, this book.
Surprising instances of justified irreverence are peppered throughout, adding to the book’s vibrancy and authenticity. Cook does not shy away from criticizing sites that do a poor job of honoring their tragic history, such as a temple in Kamakura, Japan, which sells expensive statues to grieving mothers to give them hope that their deceased child will be guided to the afterlife. The author decries this as a monetization of grief that amounts to “spiritual bribery,” and even criticizes mourners who purchase the statutes as “…a way of not confronting the irreversibly random, pitiless and unfair nature of life.” However, Cook challenges his own assumptions and ultimately reconciles conflicting thoughts:
…in the face of overwhelming loss, perhaps one should be allowed to react to it as one sees fit without garnering the contempt of those inclined to deal with it quite differently.
The most compelling aspect of Even Darkness Sings is the role that travel has played in molding Cook’s relationship with his wife and daughter, who often accompanied him, and why he views dark places as a gift:
…in remembering them, you remember those you were with in a way that is often richer and more touched by tenderness than memories made in places less charged with emotion or deepened by gravity.
At its core, the author is writing a love letter to dark places, which are a bridge of shared experiences between the past and present that links humanity together. The reader is taught that to be human means to understand tragedy, whether it is a world away or in one’s own backyard. After detailing the heart-wrenching death of his wife, Cooks admits:
…there are limits to how much a dark place can relive and restore you when the place is your own, when you have reached the tragic shore within you, and learned that here, at least for now, there is no light. There is only the necessity to go on.
Drawing upon lessons learned from the grief of others, Cook found the strength to go on and despite the darkness that had enveloped him, was still able to answer the implied question “can light be found in darkness?” with an unequivocal “yes.”
Logan Mortenson is a non-practicing attorney living in St. Paul, MN with his wife and an ever-expanding collection of presidential biographies.