cover image Landfalls


Naomi J. Williams. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-18315-8

Williams’s debut novel is a historical maritime adventure based on the actual ill-fated 1785–1788 Lapérouse expedition of scientific exploration, when France sent two ships on an around-the-world voyage of discovery. Williams’s research is thorough and meticulous, using primary sources such as letters, journals, and reports sent from the expedition—until both ships and their crews vanished without a trace in 1788 in the South Pacific. From those sources Williams weaves a fictional and suspenseful tale of uncertain exploration, telling each part of the story from a different character’s perspective and location. In London, the expedition’s naval engineer tries to buy British navigation and scientific instruments without tipping off the English to their use. In Chile, the French are greeted warmly by the Spanish, but illicit romance and ideas of imperialism and revolution surface. Alaska sees tragic contact with local natives, and a visit to California reveals the threat of Russian expansion. In Macao, the expedition commander, Captain Jean-Francois Lapérouse, has trouble with the pompous scientists. In the South Pacific, the ships battle islanders, suspicions of murder arise, and the ships and crews disappear. Years later, search parties and blind luck reveal clues to the fate of the Lapérouse expedition, and Williams brilliantly describes the end of the expedition as remembered by a single survivor and several islanders. Williams does a masterly job with her descriptions of the officers, sailors, scientists, and people they meet, explaining a colorful, vibrant bit of maritime history in the age of discovery. [em](Aug.) [/em]