The Lost City wavers between character-driven drama
and adventure tale. The novel begins with a triptych
illustration of the Peruvian landscape. The hot, barren
desert; the gray, fogged desert and the luscious green coast
smacks of hell, purgatory, and Edenic heaven. Shukman makes
the reader wait through three pages of detailed scenery
depiction before giving the main character's name, Jackson
Small. Shukman takes his time to build the expectation that
rugged, difficult nature will play a main character opposite
Jackson - but all is not as it first seems.
Jackson is escaping his present-day existence by searching for ancient ruins in the Peruvian unknown, and until he runs into some unexpected company while he's brewing tea over his campfire, nature seems like the only real obstacle to his quest. Then, humanity charges in, and the beautiful, lyrical descriptions of desert, sky, and wind are left behind, along with the notion that nature will play any part in this story beyond setting the background.
The exposition is so good that as the novel slides into a different type of story, it is difficult to let go of the man-versus-wild expectation set at the beginning; but the tale quickly evolves into a treasure hunt for both Jackson's purpose in the world and the lost city of La Joya, which is fabled to be in the middle of the cloud forest, an almost impenetrable section of the jungle where the sun never shines and interminable fog hangs amongst the trees. What could have been a relatively easy trek into the jungle is made difficult by Jackson's emotional attachments, promises to old army majors, and violent drug lords. Also in the back of Jackson's mind is the mysterious Connelly, a man who has left an indelible mark on Jackson's soul. By the end of the novel, it is clear that the title means far more than what Jackson hopes to find in the forest.
Shukman tackles some large ideas in this adventure novel: America and Britain's involvement in Latin America; modern, urban life versus a simpler, pastoral existence; the definition of family; sexuality; and the drug wars. The characters discuss and wrestle with these notions, but do not resolve them. Jackson evolves into a different person as the novel progresses, but the illustration of his development takes second place to the suspense plot, and this is a missed opportunity. Jackson could have borne the burden of wrestling with weighty issues, but the driving action plot does not give him the time to deal with them. When given the choice between developing Jackson to his most complex and interesting or creating a high drama scenario, Shukman chooses the latter.
The strength of Shukman's work is the description of the scenery. The Lost City works best when Jackson is alone in the forest and desert, the delicate descriptions of cloud and fog, and the elegant illustrations of ancient cities shrouded in vines are beautiful and evocative. Shukman's pacing and gift for language are well showcased.
The Lost City is a great adventure story, but the promise of the grand exposé, with complex character development to follow, is unfulfilled. Whatever Shukman's intention, either character drama or action tale, The Lost City is riveting. Jackson's adventures, the characters he meets, and the powerful descriptions of a beautiful landscape make this novel, but ultimately, the desire to know if Jackson ever finds 'the lost city' is what keeps the pages turning.
This review was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the April 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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