I have read many historical fiction novels of which some are amongst my all time favourites. With this in mind I was looking forward to reading Naomi Williams exciting debut, Landfalls.
In 1785, French Navy officer Lapérouse was appointed by Louis XVI to lead an expedition around the world in command of two ships, Astrolabe and Boussole. The objectives included completing maps of the areas, making scientific discoveries and looking for potential trade opportunities. In Landfalls we watch the expedition take shape, and follow the crew on an epic voyage taking in destinations such as Chile, Alaska, California and Russia amongst others.
Each chapter introduces the reader to different members of the expedition, natives and others affected by the events. These characters who have long been buried by time have been given a voice in this novel and have been brought to life. Through them we see the physical and emotional strain that occurs as a result of the demands of such an expedition. We see how the men onboard cope with spending months, or years, away from loved ones. There is then the matter of resisting – or not in many cases – the advances of other women who they encounter along their travels. The main challenge faced by the expedition is loss of life and there are harrowing moments when a tragedy unfolds in an Alaskan bay and a captain is too grief stricken to construct a letter to their relatives. Reminiscing on these events we hear of a survivor ‘occasionally he would find himself stopping short and wondering if any of it actually happened’ Along with this grief there is hope. Hope that the crew will find their lost comrades, hope that a wife will be reunited with her husband again. In some cases there is simply hope that they may find their remains, to find closure and an appropriate tribute.
There was a lot of detail in this story. We learn of what equipment is required before the trip can take place, what items can be used to trade with the natives, the presence of portraiture and the variety of occupations that inhabit the ship. There is also a glimpse into the fashions of the time which included some amusing statements from the characters including: ‘What an absurd country, in which wearing a sword makes one effeminate but carrying a beribboned walking stick does not’ and ‘It was an odd effect, the combination of apparel so gaudy and behavior so modest’
This was a vivid portrayal of the events of the expedition and I feel after reading that I have taken something from it. Aside from learning a little more about this voyage and the people it affected, I learnt a little about grief and also hope. It’s a gripping nautical adventure, a story of exploration, discovery, hope and loss.
Landfalls is due to be published on 22nd October 2015 by Little, Brown. Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Little, Brown for providing a review copy.