Review by Rebecca Gibson
It isn’t hard to find a way into Naomi Williams’ debut novel Landfalls, even if you know next to nothing about voyages of exploration or French history, or even if you’ve not read much historical fiction. The novel is based on the true story of the La Pérouse expedition, which left France in 1785 with two hundred men and the great ships Astrolabe and Boussole, only to run into copious hardships and tragedies in its attempt to circumnavigate the globe for the glory of France.
Williams juggles a large cast of narrating characters with ease and has a glorious ability to make you feel connected to them within a few pages, much like Hilary Mantel. I never once got confused over characters’ identities, despite a lot of similar names and roles – after all, pretty much everyone in this book is a French sailor to a lesser or greater degree. All her main characters are so well individualised that it wasn’t a struggle to remember them, and her descriptions of the far off lands travelled by the expedition are so vivid that I remembered the route with little trouble when prompted, despite the sigh I uttered when I saw a map at the beginning of the book (I’m not great with directions). Williams has a light but firm touch, and her awareness of how history can be moulded to the concerns of those who write it makes for a very interesting read.
It is customary to express sympathy and shock when confronted with natural disasters that fell large numbers in the news these days, but they rarely touch us like they would if we knew the dead personally. The numbers are just too big, the loss too much to internalise. I was struck by the way Landfalls brings the reader close to the victims of such a disaster, long before the end arrives. It’s impossible not to empathise with these men, stuck living together in cramped conditions on a dangerous voyage of discovery, who nonetheless bond together tightly, developing close personal ties that reach much deeper than the respect of colleagues. Williams shows us not just the grand ambition of these men but their personal foibles, their small triumphs and their regrets, and in doing so makes the weight of their sacrifice impossible to forget; it’s men like this who made it possible for us to map the globe, and eventually to travel across it in a matter of hours. That privilege had to be earned, Williams shows us over and over again, and at a heavy cost.
My only real complaint about Landfalls is a distinct lack of female voices. Women crop up here and there, but they play unimportant roles and are inevitably defined by their relationships with men, even the chapter narrated by a native Alaskan girl of twelve (the only female narrated chapter in the book). Williams wrote on Twitter that she considers Landfalls to be a feminist work, and I’m not entirely sure why that is. She herself may be a feminist, but perhaps out of necessity considering her subject matter, female representation was lacking in this novel, as thoroughly enjoyable as it was in other respects.