Henry Shukman, The Lost City (London: Abacus, 2007), 342pp
Ostensibly a story in which a young man sets out to find a lost city in the Andes, Henry Shukman's The Lost City is in fact nothing of the sort. Whereas the quest of discovery is held as the primary motive of the protagonist, Jackson, it is in fact one of the most minor strands of the plot, which held great promise but was strangely unfulfilling.
It is hard to put one's finger on what exactly is wrong with this book, but I can gauge that for every compliment one may pay it there is a significant caveat, most of which are down to the plot. The descriptive prose is evocative, but often overdone and tends to drag the storytelling out. The relationships - particularly Jackson's with Sarah and with Connelly - attempt to add some depth to the characterisation, but are so one-dimensional and predictable that they de-energise the plot. The quest for the lost city is itself a let-down, a damp squib; its belated discovery is covered in a single chapter towards the end, after which the plot continues on its messy circling of the drain.
Addressing the quest for the lost city so sketchily would have been forgivable if what took its place in the author's priorities was actually interesting. Instead, we get a somewhat boring story of a man backpacking - holidaying, essentially - in Peru, trying to "find himself". Consequently, it is hard to shake the feeling that Jackson's mentality is similar to that of a gap year student, identifying the romantic, simple nobility of the foreign peasantry. Unfortunately, this mentality is carried through to completion; there is endless banal philosophising, the type of which might sound good in the author's head, but when put down on paper looks like the rambling brain farts of a teenage philosophy student. Exhibit A: "The land is an animal. The land is a human being asleep. Or awake but incapable of movement. Freely moving but we don't look right so we don't see the movement." (pg. 166).
And it is not just Jackson, from whom we are gifted the above enlightened nugget of truth, but all characters engage in the same kind of aimless philosophising. This means that one hears the voice of the author in all of the characters; they are all indistinct, thinking the same things merely repackaged in different vessels. Every character - minor and major, from criminal gun thugs to priests - is, it seems, a philosopher, who hates the materialism of the West and monologues in florid prose. It occasionally makes the novel tedious to read. So, for the love interest Sarah, life is "a game you find yourself caught in, though you never asked to join. And you have to discover the rules by yourself as you play." (pg. 140). Wow, that's original. For Jackson, life is "a glass capsule with night pressing in on all sides. It was just a matter of time until it broke." (pg. 178), which seems profound until you actually think about it. Every minor incident is an excuse to start contemplating and making tenuous philosophical links: after seeing a dance procession, Jackson muses about how 'that was what life consisted of' - entering and exiting a stage (pg. 145). I was half-expecting one character to tell us how 'life is like a box of chocolates' - indeed, that is essentially the train of thought that is regurgitated over and over throughout the novel. Like I suggested before, that is not real philosophising, just an exercise in banality. By the time the drug smuggler Stryker, a minor character who appears only briefly, begins to muse on the West as "that dismal place of lost souls drifting through lives they hated" (pg. 216), one begins to despair at Shukman's decision to provide no variety in the characters' outlooks.
It is this, I believe, which is why I had such a negative reaction to The Lost City. It is a below-average travel book masquerading as a high-brow adventure novel, evidenced most strongly by the fact that once La Joya, the lost city of the title, is found, Shukman quickly moves on to other matters. The apparent message - that it is the journey, not the destination, that is important - is a Disneyland moral that fits in well with the trite philosophising of the characters. It is not a bad book, but it is the literary equivalent of painting a turd. It has been praised for its eloquent prose, but this merely serves as a superficial dressing to cover up the lack of plot, characterisation or, indeed, anything substantial. In the novel, Jackson is searching for a lost ancient city in the mountains, which is obscured by the clouds. The book itself uses a similar smokescreen to hide what is beneath the surface, but what is actually beneath is nothing as wondrous as lost treasures.