In her first book, Naomi J Williams has spun a lovely fiction round a fascinating piece of history.
Two ships, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, set sail from Brest in August 1785; carrying officers, crew, engineers, artists, scientists, priests, interpreters and others. They were sailing under the orders of Louis XVI, into a world that was only partially mapped and very little known. They were to circumnavigate the globe; to create new maps and to open up trade routes; and to bring knowledge and understanding home to France.
It was hoped, of course, that this expedition would cast a shadow over that of Captain Cook.
I knew nothing at all about the history, I resisted looking it up, and I’m very glad that I did; I’m sure that I would have loved the book even if I had foreknowledge, but coming to this narrative as I did made it an enthralling voyage of discovery.
‘Landfalls’ is a collection of tales told in different voices. Some are told in the third person, by the most observant of omniscient narrators, but most are told in the first person, by some of the very different men who sailed on the two ships and by some of the people whose lives they touched.
The range of the stories is wonderful – a young man very nearly out of his depth as he seeks vital supplies and intelligence in London; a journey across the Russian Steppes for another young man who had always been destine to leave the expedition there, for work in the diplomatic service; a misjudgement of currents in uncharted territory that could have terrible consequences; a man found dead, in circumstances that are far from clear ….
Some are stronger that others, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that several had originally been short stories, but they come together to make a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Because the progress of the expedition is always at the centre of the narrative, and because that expedition always felt so real and so alive.
The scope of the research that underpins this novel is extraordinary; and that it was a work of love, and that the author gained a real depth of understanding of her subject is obvious. The fiction that she built on fact was both wonderfully inventive and utterly believable.
She manages a large and diverse cast of characters with aplomb; threading them in and out of different stories. I didn’t doubt that she always knew exactly who was on each ship, what each person’s role was, what their history was, how they fitted in to the life of the expedition. If only the man called on to write a report after a certain incident had known as much ….
She writes perceptively of the complex relationships between people who much live and work at close quarters; the strain and tension between those who are not compatible and the bonds that are strengthened by shared experiences by those who are. She understood that even men who yearn to travel and explore feel the pull of home, and wonder and worry about the people they left behind.
Each and every one of the places where the expedition finds land is vividly realised. The diversity and the differences were explored; as were the different perceptions of explorers and natives, and the gulf of understanding between them. I wondered how it must have felt, whether it was possible to understand, that your who world was just one stop on a journey, a place to do business and acquire fresh supplies before moving on ….
I was so impressed with the way Naomi J Williams assembled her pieces, to create a whole that had so many aspects and so much breadth and depth. A few of the pieces seemed less than perfect – an early story that went on for far too long; a late story that seemed less important than others that might have been told – but when I saw the whole I didn’t think about that, I thought about the lives, about the history, about so many things.
And so I have to say that ‘Landfalls’ is a very fine historical novel, that it sent me on a voyage of discovery, the like of which I could never have imagined; and that it spoke to both my head and my heart.