Travel literature review: The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Angela Tinson

David Grann’s The Lost City of Z is a fascinating account of both early 20th-century Amazonian exploration and early 21st-century investigative journalism — both intriguing exercises of obsession.

Grann’s subject, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett — British artillery officer, member of the Royal Geographical Society, surveyor, spy and anthropologist — 'was the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose'.

Fawcett spent more than 20 years exploring the Amazon, at a time when exploration parties were often decimated by disease or starvation if they were not abducted or killed by local tribes, some of whom were rumoured to practise cannibalism. Over this period, Fawcett became obsessed with the idea of a large, complex civillisation, like the mythical El Dorado, lost in the Amazon. He secretively named his goal 'Z', and was determined to find and reveal it to the world. But in 1925, on an expedition with his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell, Fawcett and his party disappeared without a trace. Grann (a staff writer for the New Yorker), like so many before him (many of whom also vanished or perished in the jungle), in turn became obsessed with the idea of finding out what really happened to Fawcett on that fateful expedition.

At times the writing is a little dry, as Grann establishes his sources and his authority as an investigative journalist; but the lengths he went to and the methods he used to uncover the story are fascinating in themselves. And for the most part his writing is evocative and the story enthralling – from illustrative descriptions of the mighty Amazon River to blood-curdling accounts of the parasites and infections that plagued explorers of Fawcett’s time.

I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure!

 Angela Tinson, a Managing Editor at Lonely Planet, became obsessed with David Grann’s work after hearing him speak at the 2012 Melbourne Writer’s Festival.

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