The Lost City of Z by David Grann

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came to this story through the film of the same name which was something I watched almost by mistake and then enjoyed intensely. I spend a lot of time in the early twentieth century but primarily through the filter of children’s literature, texts written for young girls, and the work of female authors. The story of a man who spent his life exploring the Amazon before, ultimately, losing his life to it, fascinated me. It felt like a real world Boy’s Own adventures but one with a sad and tragic edge (and that’s something that the fictional Boy’s Own stories I read rarely have…).

In the Lost City of Z, David Grann explores the life of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. One of the last “great explorers” who spent his years exploring the Amazonian rainforest, Fawcett became increasingly convinced that this place hid a secret, long-lost city. He dubbed this city ‘Z’ and devoted his life towards finding it. On Fawcett’s last expedition into the rainforest, where he was accompanied by his son and his son’s friend, the three of them disappeared. Along with exploring this story and how Fawcett’s disappearance scandalised the early twentieth century (and inspired a whole host of deeply unsuccessful ‘rescue’ expeditions), Grann also shares his own journey into the Amazon whilst also offering some ideas as to what may have happened to Fawcett’s expedition.

I liked this. Grann’s style is deeply readable, engrossing, and his subject matter burns with interest. Even during the more fantastical and unreal moments, Grann is careful to provide references and sources and remind the reader that this did all, in fact, happen. There’s a substantial section where these sources and his methodology are laid out in detail and I was satisfied to see that, for example, he had taken much of the quotations he used in the book directly from source material. It’s a well-grounded book.

From a readerly perspective, it’s an eye-opening narrative and one that reveals how brutal and horrific the attitude of the Victorian explorer could be. Grann shares some horrific incidents and attitudes ranging from a little bit of murder to a lot of murder and then doing a bit extra murder and then doing everything else besides. It is an understatement to say that explorers of this book often earned their knowledge at the cost of the people who lived there. Grann is careful to recognise how often Fawcett was horrified by such incidents but I wondered if there was some more critical work to do here (there is something, I think, to realising how much such things appal whilst also realising that the individual you’re writing about is still cut from a very similar cloth..).

It does end a little briefly, a little suddenly, but I think that was always going to be the nature of the beast. We literally don’t know what happened to them, for sure. Grann offers a persuasive reading but still, there’s that unknown edge. What remains, however, is a fiercely vivid and often heartbreaking story of loss and Grann helps us to understand the magnitude of that. The expedition is lost but that loss is felt keenly, sharply, by a thousand other people beside. A poignant, powerful book.

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3 thoughts on “The Lost City of Z by David Grann

  1. My mother had a hardback of Exploration Fawcett by Percy Fawcett, edited by B Fawcett, first published in 1953 (though her copy may have been a reprint from a couple of years later) which as a teen I began but somehow never finished. Maybe because (a) the city was never rediscovered, and (b) Colonel Fawcett was never found. The impatience of youth! I suspect I’d finish it now, but will have to make do with this newer account. 🙂

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