Landfalls tells the story of an actual ill-fated around-the-world voyage which began in 1785 and ended in 1788, although the book continues by looking at the aftermath until 1829. Williams chooses to tell the story through a large cast of characters, a different person or group of people taking centre stage in each of the sixteen chapters.
The journey begins in France with the installation of two galley stoves, one for the Boussole, captained by Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse and the other for the Astrolabe, captained by Paul-Antoine-Marie Fleuriot, Viscount de Langle. At this point most of the crew of the expedition have no idea where they’re going or what their purpose is. The reader, however, discovers in the first chapter that Paul-Mérault de Monneron, a naval engineer, who’s part of the crew is going on ‘…a voyage of exploration meant to compete with the accomplishments of the late Captain Cook…’. However, the secrecy surrounding the expedition means he’s told the other passenger in the stagecoach in which he’s travelling from Dover to London ‘…that he’s in England at the behest of a Spanish merchant, Don Inigo Alvarez, with whom he’ll be sailing to the South Seas’.
This is the first time he’s tried the Don Inigo story on anyone. He’s surprised by the fluency and ease with which he spouts the commingled lies and truths. He hadn’t liked the idea of travelling under a fictitious pretext – had, in fact, challenged the need for secrecy at all…when the Spanish merchant ruse was first concocted, he’d burst out laughing. “Don Inigo Alverez?” he’d cried. “It’s like something out of a play.” But the minister held firm: “People are inclined to believe what they hear,” he said. “Speak with assurance and no one will question you.”
I don’t know whether this was something that really happened but it’s an interesting idea for Williams to introduce at this early stage, particularly as it’s followed closely by Monneron visiting John Webber, the official painter on Captain Cook’s expedition. At Webber’s house, Monneron sees a painting of a Tahitian princess done during the voyage whilst she was a prisoner on the ship.
Monneron looks again at the painting, at the princesses’ serene face, her pliant arms, the openness implied by her breasts, the nipples tipped slightly away from each other. One would never guess she’d been a hostage while this portrait was being done. Now he wonders – did she really have those flowers in her hair? That white cloth – did Webber add that to protect English sensibilities? And perhaps that’s not serenity in her expression so much as surrender.
Williams reminds us that art forms (including creative writing) are interpretations – both by writer and by reader. In the case of the writer, this is particularly the case when working with a ‘true’ story, one for which documentary evidence written by one or more people exists. Whilst telling us the story of the voyage and the people those on the expedition meet along the way, Williams explores this idea of the truth of a story and whose story it is by utilising a variety of narrators and perspectives. The most interesting of these are when she tells the same scene from one or more characters points-of-view.
The first of these is when the expedition arrives in Alaska. A local girl narrates the scene and encounters one of the crew as she wanders on the outskirts of her village. In the following chapter we discover the crew member is Langle, captain of the Astrolabe. The local girl and Langle cannot speak each other’s languages and the disconnect between the two understandings of their encounter is fascinating, particularly in terms of the French man’s prejudices.
The other thing I found really interesting is Williams’ portrayals of her female characters. The ships’ crews are entirely male but of course some of them have wives and sisters and there are women encountered in the various places the voyage visits. Some have a voice, some don’t. All are considered through their relationship with men but we’re shown a range of experiences which seem to add up to the sad fact that women are treated badly all around the world.
Landfalls is an interesting and skilfully written novel. I suspect the changes in perspective and the leaps between sections of the voyage will not be to every reader’s taste. However, I found the exploration of various perspectives leading to questions about truth to be a thought-provoking approach to historical fiction.
Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.