'Landfalls' is a delightful, intelligent 18th-century sailing yarn

A debut novel of an 18th-century French expedition – capturing history's delusions and personal slants – proves a 'surprise and a triumph.'

Landfalls: A Novel, By Naomi J. Williams Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition 336 pp.

Landfalls, Naomi J. Williams’s first novel, is an ingenious encounter with the past and another demonstration of how far the historical novel has advanced from the tableaus, puppet shows, and costume dramas of yore. It tells a conglomerate story, of the Lapérouse exploratory expedition, which embarked from Brest in 1785 and disappeared in the vicinity of the Solomon Islands in 1788.

It was made up of two ships, one of which, the Astrolabe, was captained by a nobleman, Paul-Antoine-Marie Fleuriot, vicomte de Langle. The other ship, the Boussole, was commanded by Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse, also, despite his inferior birth, the expedition’s leader. A man of eager optimism, Lapérouse is ideally suited to the mission, which, undertaken at the order of Louis XVI, is “to complete and perfect the globe,” to lay claim to new lands and map them, chart unvisited waters, correct errors on existing maps and charts, study flora and fauna, and find opportunities for trade – to pick up, more or less, where the English captain James Cook had left off.

The first of the title’s “landfalls” is preliminary to the actual voyage and brings the expedition’s chief engineer, Paul-Mérault de Moneron, to London to purchase supplies, most importantly British nautical instruments, which, annoyingly enough, are superior to French ones. In the course of his short stay, he has an audience with the great naturalist Joseph Banks, once botanist aboard Cook’s Endeavor and now patron of science, president of the Royal Society, spymaster – and last spotted by many readers in the pages of Patrick O’Brian’s works. In this brief interview, we get a sense of the spirit of the age and the degree to which affinity among scientists trumped age-old, if temporarily quiescent, hostility between the two nations. Indeed, Banks goes so far as to lend the French expedition two specialized compasses, the very instruments used on the ships commanded by Cook on his last, fatal voyage.

From Brest, the ships head for Tenerife, where we meet Jean-Honoré-Robert de Paul, chevalier (as he styles himself) de Lamanon, the man whose well-fed frame fills the positions of botanist, geologist, physicist, and meteorologist on the expedition. We are told, right off the bat, that as of August 26, 1785, he “has two years, three months, and fifteen days left to live. He does not know this of course.”

And Lamanon is not a man to imagine it. A man of science, admirer of Rousseau, and brilliant in his way, he is also self-important, a tireless talker, and a nonstop grouser about restrictions on his activities – and, as such, provides comic touches throughout. He is the spirit of philosophical optimism personified, and his belief in the peaceful benignity of island natives, so free of the taint of civilization, remains secure for two years, three months, and 15 days.

In Lamanon, more so even than in her other characters – which is to say her rendition of historical persons – Williams shows how blind we are in our own lives, unable to see the world as it really is, how unsuspecting we are that our expectations will be confounded, sometimes by the smallest incident.

There is something poignant about this state of affairs, especially for men such as Lamanon, forward-looking idealists standing, they think, on the threshold of a new dispensation of science, freedom, and peace. But in another of her occasional melancholic, omniscient remarks, Williams asks for a pause: “A pause to regard a man at the point of greatest optimism about the future, before the forces of history overwhelm him.”

The ships’ next port of call recorded here is Concepción, Chile – but wait, where is it? Not where it is on the map, that’s for sure. It turns out that the town has moved south, the original Concepción having been completely wiped out by an earthquake in 1751. The reader will no doubt recall, at this juncture, that it was an earthquake (Lisbon, 1755) that dealt the most telling blow to eighteenth-century philosophical optimism. This is just one instance of Williams’s subtle genius for taking advantage of history’s generosity with motif.

After the engineer Moneron treats the citizens of Concepción to an astonishing demonstration of French scientific and technological innovation (the nature of which I shall not divulge), the novel brings the expedition to Alaska. This interlude is narrated by a Tlingit girl who presents an outsider’s apprehensive, perplexed view of the expedition and its loss of several men to a rogue sea.

From there the ships journey on, sighting a phantom land thrown up by the fog before arriving at the Spanish colony at Monterey, an unsavory place in the grip of sadistic missionaries. The details of this sojourn come to us from the pens of six different people, a constellation of unreliable or partial accounts out of which emerges a tale of cruelty, exploitation, and madness.

On the ships sail, taking in Macao, Russia, and Samoa, where a dreadful, entirely fortuitous event provides further evidence of the true nature of this best of all possible worlds. Grieving and sobered, the ships continue on to Botany Bay (and a possible murder), and thence to the Solomon Islands and ... disappearance. The story continues, however, dealing out a few more ironies, blows of fate, missed chances, and could-have-beens, all deftly presented.

The mode in which each episode is related, the forms of narration, is integral to the story itself. Letters, dispatch reports, personal narratives, none of them really complete and not all of them reliable: each comes with its built-in slant, the result of cultural prejudice, ideological preconception, self-delusion, or reluctance to admit the facts.

Williams shows admirable faith in her readers’ intelligence by not spelling things out and allowing us the exhilarating pleasure of extracting for ourselves the actual story being told. Her restraint and cunning in this regard, as well as her lively characters, sharp wit, and evocation of 18th-century optimism – that “basic faith in the goodness and rightness of life and the world” – make this debut a real surprise and a triumph.

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