Naomi J. Williams’ debut novel “Landfalls” is a dazzling recreation of a real-life 18th century French expedition that touched down in Tenerife, Chile, Alaska and other far-flung places before vanishing.
by Naomi J. Williams
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 315 pp., $26
There are at least 10 distinctive worlds explored in Naomi J. Williams’ extraordinary debut novel, “Landfalls.” And the question arising from them all is: How does a 21st-century California author know so persuasively what went on in an 18th-century French maritime captain’s mind? Or in the thoughts of a headstrong indigenous Alaskan teenage girl circa 1786? Or in the heart of a young Solomon Islands woman married to a French castaway whose origins she can scarcely understand?
Yet somehow, thanks to her meticulous research and prodigious imagination, Williams pulls off one miracle of historic recreation after another.
“Landfalls” is her fictionalized account of the Lapérouse expedition, which set out from France in 1785 and touched down in Tenerife, Chile, Alaska, California, Macao, Kamchatka and various South Pacific islands, before vanishing in 1791. Its ambition was to expand and improve on the findings of Capt. Cook’s famous Pacific voyages. French-British nationalistic rivalry was part of the picture, in terms of both scientific prestige and belated colonial ambition on the part of France.
The expedition’s two ships were captained by Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse (“Lapérouse” being an invention to give his name a classier ring) and the more genuinely aristocratic Paul-Antoine-Marie Fleuriot, Viscount de Langlie.
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Williams, with her opening prologue, brings the feisty microcosm of shipboard existence to instant life. One thing is clear from the start: The “savants” aboard (i.e., the scientific researchers) are oblivious to the protocols of military chains of command. They venture off on explorations without even notifying Lapérouse.
The tactless Chevalier de Lamanon — physicist, botanist, geologist, meteorologist (“Four men of science for the price of one!” he likes to say) — is particularly clueless on how he rubs his shipmates, both high-placed and low, the wrong way.
Each chapter has the artful arc of a perfect short story, with Williams’ slippery shifts in points of view creating multifaceted realities that are downright dazzling. Conflicting prejudices and testimonies make many of these narratives-within-narratives feel like decoy-filled mysteries in need of sly parsing.
Her third chapter, “Concepción,” works almost as a stand-alone novella, from its striking opening (“How strange that the town was not there”) to wistful close.
One recurring theme — the sense of having trusted realities simply evaporate on you — is highlighted here. The reason the seaport of Concepción is “not there,” we learn, is that it was obliterated by an earthquake and tsunami 35 years earlier and subsequently rebuilt further inland. (“Is it really possible that a town of ten thousand people disappeared, and that a generation later, the best cartographers in France knew nothing about it?” Lapérouse asks in frustration.)
Another recurring focus is the difficulty of picking up on social signals accurately. (Lapérouse is particularly thrown by Chilean women’s fashions and what they indicate about female character.)
Misreadings of landscape and social milieu have more lethal outcomes in Alaska, Australia and Maouna Island (now American Samoa). As Williams’ perspective leaps ahead toward the early 19th century, clues emerge to the expedition’s ultimate fate, and the very nature of memory is questioned.
With keen sensual flair and understated poignancy, especially as she limns the friendships of men at sea, Williams has delivered a bona fide masterpiece.