Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann (2009)

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Review 2.13

In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world’s largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humans. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions round the globe, Fawcett embarked with his 21-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilization–which he dubbed Z–existed. Then his expedition vanished. Fawcett’s fate, & the tantalizing clues he left behind about Z, became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness. [Source]

For centuries, the Amazon jungle has represented the some of the greatest examples of man’s hubris. Countless explorers, adventurers, cartographers, and scientists have ventured grandly into this impenetrable rainforest never to be seen again.  The Lost City of Z is a biography of one such individual, a man whose obsession with finding the ruins of an advanced civilization in the Amazon consumed both his personal and professional life. In his debut novel author David Grann attempts to retrace Fawcett’s path, both historically using letters and journals and literally by flying to Brazil and embarking on a trek through the Amazonian region.

Grann’s novel will draw inevitable comparison to Douglas Preston’s The Lost City of the Monkey God, which I read and reviewed last year. The difference is that while Monkey God is the story of a region and all the countless expeditions that had failed, City of Z is the more personal story of one man and his restless desire to find a hidden culture. Both novels were highly successful in convincing this reader never to visit the Amazon rainforest. One of the phrases that I enjoyed from The Lost City of Z described the area as a “counterfeit paradise”. The lush vegetation and abundant life of the jungle conceals a surprisingly lack of food, and what wildlife there is seems specifically designed to inflict the most discomfort possible before killing you.

While there are numerous disgusting descriptions scattered through this novel, it still a straightforward biography rather than an exciting book of exploration. Grann refuses to speculate on or romanticize the fate of his subjects. The bulk of City of Z is a more or less straightforward account of Fawcett’s various expeditions into the Amazon and the efforts of his fellow explorers to find him after his disappearance. The reminder of the book is an interesting and occasionally humorous first-hand account of Grann’s preparations for jungle travel and his eventual attempt to retrace Fawcett’s last known trail.

While The Lost City of Z was not the thrilling adventure novel advertised by it’s book jacket, I nevertheless found myself intrigued by the story of Fawcett and his ill-fated adventures. Only in recent years, with remote satellite and lidar technology, are we even coming close to forming a definitive picture of the secrets hidden under the Amazonian canopy. Perhaps more evidence of this ancient civilization will be discovered with time.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Lost City of Z here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Mark Deakins and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

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