Book Review - The Lost City of Z by David Grann

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon is an extremely well written story which attempts to solve the 90 year old mystery of what happened to a group of British explorers who went missing in the Amazon basin whilst searching for a lost civilisation.

In an era when explorers were the Kardashian-equivalents of their time, the disappearance of the 57-year old Fawcett, his son Jack and Jack's best friend Raleigh Rimell in 1925 resulted in massive world-wide interest in the fate that befell them. Based on an earlier article of the same name, written for the New Yorker, this is not as much a swashbuckling tale at the title might suggest, but rather mostly an historical account of Colonel Percy Fawcett's life and his fixation with finding a fabled city like El Dorado, which he coins simply Z. On a certain level, it is also a cautionary tale about obsession.

There is plenty to like about The Lost City of Z. The monumental research that Grann has undertaken provides a wonderful insight into a period of explorative history, that unfortunately today, no longer exists (the depth of research is best evidenced by the fact that a full third of my Kindle version was taken up by the notes and bibliography sections!).

Grann's descriptive writing style also succeeds in drawing you into the mystery, both of what happened to Fawcett and also that deeper mystery of whether or not the lost city actually existed at all. With vivid descriptions of poisonous and giant snakes, piranhas, electric eels and jaguars, Grann paints a very inhospitable picture of this primeval wilderness, even before taking into account the dangers presented by the not-so-humble mosquito and sandfly (at this point I would advise that you do not view the Google images associated with espundia/leishmaniasis!).

Probably best of all is the way in which Grann evokes the magestical imagery of the "counterfeit paradise" that is the Amazon and its people. This otherworldliness is perhaps best illustrated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who reportedly was inspired by reports of Fawcett's expeditions in the Amazon leading him to base his book The Lost World on these descriptions.

The Lost City of Z also does a good job of drawing attention to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and the potential fate of the Amazonian jungle, which continues to disappear at the rate of 20,000 square miles per year (which is larger than the size of Denmark).

However, not everything gels. Only a small part of the book is devoted to Grann's parallel search in Brazil for the final truth about the disappearance of Fawcett. And the accuracy of Grann's account of Fawcett has also been questioned by people such as the modern-day explorer John Hemming in the the following article:

All told, this is a story that although, well written, just didn't leave its mark on me. Even before reading Hemming's article I felt as if something was missing. Most probably I was looking for more of the modern story - that is Grann's adventure - most especially, given the book's preface which opens with Grann deep in the jungle separated from his guide and out of food and water. Instead, the book focuses nearly all of its pages on the story of Fawcett. All this said, however, the book does get a lot of great reviews, so obviously resonates with a lot of people - whether these are over-hyped or not, I'll leave you to decide.

3 stars out of 5

Banner Credit: Nicolas Rénac