It’s difficult not to romanticize the period of history in the 18th century when countries sent ships out in an attempt to fully explore (and colonize) every mass of land around the globe. Conceptually, first world nations believe this was all about investigating new frontiers as if the world was covered in virgin soil to claim and conquer. These missions created many significant moments of connection between disparate civilizations which had long-lasting impact as we shifted towards a sense of globalization with all its positive and negative consequences. There was so much peril to these journeys and a sense of the unknown tied into them. Debut novelist Naomi Williams has an interesting tactic for approaching a specific expedition from history. Rather than focusing on the many months spent at sea, she concentrates only on the occasions when an expedition reached land and the interactions between sailors and the native inhabitants. Focusing on a broad spectrum of characters and using a variety of narrative techniques, Williams creates a riveting story that embraces the drama of global exploration while sympathetically highlighting the cultural clashes which occurred.

Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse

Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse

In 1785 two French ships set sail for a world-wide voyage to follow in the path of the famous captain James Cook. They aimed to further map little-explored areas of the globe, make scientific collections, establish trade routes and create political allies. Jean François Lapérouse led this mission which touched down in such far-reaching areas as South America, Alaska, California, Macau, Manila, Russia, Samoa and Australia before coming upon the Solomon Islands where both ships disappeared. The novel “Landfalls” brings this four year journey to life as the sailors touch these specific landing sites of the expedition. Sometimes the chapters focus on the perspective of engineers, naturalists or priests from the ship. Other times the reader sees events through the perspective of the inhabitants who meet them such as members of a Spanish colony or the native people of South Sea Islands. This gives the reader a multi-layers perspective where both the explorers and the explored appear at times as foreign entities that conflict with or adapt to each other’s different customs.

There are several particularly dramatic events which are brought fully to life such as a celebratory display for the Spanish in Chile, a tragedy that occurs in heavy currents on the coast of Alaska and the religious subjugation of the “neophytes” by Catholics in the Americas where severe punishment was inflicted upon the impious. Interestingly, the incident in Alaska is shown through both the perspective of a girl on shore who witnesses it and the crew suffering from the consequences afterwards. This gives a rounded perspective where you can see the naivety and misunderstanding on both sides. Another dynamically rounded point of view occurs when a series of letters by different people describe the plight of the kept wife of a particularly tyrannical and nasty official. The author gives careful focus at several points to the limitations imposed upon women at the time: “Names belong to men, while women belong to names.” However, she also takes time with the special bonds that can be formed between men on extended journeys. One of the most sustained and gripping accounts is concerning Barthelemy de Lesseps, a French translator who accompanied the sea voyage for two years before disembarking in Kamchatka. In order to return dispatches from the ships, he had to make a long and dangerous journey across northern Asia to get to St. Petersburg. This account is filled with sled dogs, perilous arctic conditions and a unique kinship Lesseps forms making it a particularly vivid chapter.

Watch Naomi Williams talk about her inspiration for Landfalls.

Many of the central characters involved have amusing quirks and the author has a talent for playfully poking at their sometimes inflated sense of self importance or pretentions. These particularly come out when the hierarchical relationships between characters become clear. Some people must be tolerated over long periods of time within the confined space of the sailing vessels. At one point it’s amusingly remarked that “Who among us does not have the odd friend whose virtues we admire, but whom we do not wish to impose on others?” There is antagonism between some and tenderness between others. Some display a grudging tolerance and other crew members come into violent conflict with each other. It can be moving to see how relationships change over the course of many years and the impact caused when some explorers are lost. However, because the novel spans a long period of time and involves such an extensive cast, I did find it confusing at some points trying to keep track of everyone involved. Although there is a map of the expedition at the beginning of the novel it would have helped to also have a list of the characters with brief descriptions of each to refer back to. As a helpful note, many of the central cast in this novel are based on historically significant people who you can easily look up on Wikipedia for a quick reference to remind you who is who. Nevertheless, many personalities brought to life by the author stick out in my mind for their distinct character. It’s particularly moving how Williams ends the book and approaches the mystery of what happened to these two fated ships from history.

“Landfalls” is an original and engaging read that has a dynamic approach to history while stirring a sense of adventure.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNaomi Williams