It’s not often that you come across a new travel writer with flare and wit, as well as a whole new direction in tourism, but in Dom Joly’s The Dark Tourist that’s exactly what you have. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable book from start to end that does a brilliant job of shedding light on some of the darkest places in the world to visit.
The concept is at once simple and yet difficult to pull off. Dark tourism is all about visiting the types of places that many other holidaymakers, your mother included, wouldn’t necessarily even think about travelling to, because they are linked to either a dark past or a troubling present. You’ve only got to look at Dom Joly’s first destination, Iran, to understand what the book is all about.
Following his skiing trip to Iran, which sounded genuinely lovely by the way, Dom goes on to visit popular tourist destination, the USA – no mean feat following a passport entry from the Iranian border patrol. However, instead of visiting Disneyland or the Empire States Building, he heads for the location of famous assassinations – including John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and John Lennon – as well as the death-place of Elvis (a toilet at Graceland with close proximity to his personal racquetball court). While there’s an element of macabre fascination about the visits, there’s also a brilliantly insightful reminder of some of the great men of the 20th Century and it’s this combination of dark interest that fuels the readability of the book.
What follows is a whirlwind tour that sees Dom go to the killing fields of Cambodia, the zone of alienation around Chernobyl, a heavily state crafted trek to see all that is great and good about North Korea and a return to Joly’s native land of Lebanon. Though these all sound pretty daunting on first inspection, after reading The Dark Tourist they’re also places you’ll want to see for myself.
One of Joly’s best writing characteristics is his ability for self deprecation, a trait that has helped to make Bill Bryson the great travel writer that he is. However, where Bryson is fixated on the thrill of the mundane, Joly ramps it up a notch to James Bond-like proportions with his thrill ride for the darkly alluring, which lends itself to a different level of self-deprecating comedy.
Another integral ingredient in the success of The Dark Tourist is his ability to look at the situation as a neutral, delivering the reality from the inner workings to the outsider’s eye, but never wavering from a good helping of understanding and empathy. It’s this pathos that makes Dom Joly’s words on the dark tourist destinations of choice so insightful and the “holidays” themselves so potentially interesting.
Dom Joly, The Dark Tourist review: 4.7/5