What’s in a name? The identity of the author offers a clue to one of the themes of this intriguing novel: Naomi, a good Hebrew name; Williams, a stout Welsh name; born in Japan; lives in California. The earth is spanned.
Landfalls charts the voyage of two French frigates exploring the world at the end of the 18th century, after Cook but before the Revolution. Based on true events, the story unfolds in discrete episodes, short stories indeed, told from a variety of points of view, in changing cases and in differing person. The dramatis personae remain more or less constant; they cross-inform each others’ stories.
In its work as historical fiction, Williams subtly outlines the cusp between ancien regime and republic. Attempting to carry out Louis XVI’s order to ‘perfect the globe’, the explorers would have returned to a France without a king. The commander of the expedition, Lapérouse (spell it any way you wish, for he does), has a republican bent about him but enjoys being called ‘Count’ although he isn’t one; one of the savants aboard ship is a dedicated follower of Rousseau, a believer in the noble savage. Had he managed to get home he would have found his hero, the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, a victim of the murderous new politics.
The book starts with a map, which is always reassuring: you know where you are. However, the message it is almost impossible not to take from Landfalls is that mutual understanding is a tricky business. The explorers spend more time ‘rooting out cartographic heresy’ —overturning the Spanish inclination to invent islands whenever and wherever they felt like it — than gloriously discovering new worlds.
The French don’t understand the Spanish. Or the native Alaskans. Or, fatally, the Pacific islanders, though they do have a Russian interpreter. Quite often they don’t understand each other. Words are frequently not enough or too much. There are signs and nods and looks. Deceitful letters are composed. Truthful letters are corrupted.
It is a very modern book. Sexual politics are addressed, class creeps into every shivering timber, racial intolerances are unavoidable. It is extremely neatly done, and written with crystal clarity.
It may seem disingenuous to suggest that the book’s perfection is its weakness. If novels are maps, then great novels have blank spaces where be dragons. Landfalls is complete, not a dragon in sight.