Landfalls – Naomi J Williams

Landfalls is the debut novel by Naomi J Williams.  It was published by Little, Brown (who kindly gave me a review copy through NetGalley) on 22 October 2015.  Landfalls unfolds for us a fictionalised version of a true story: the doomed French voyage of exploration led by the Comte de Laperouse in the 1780s.  Both ships mysteriously disappeared in the Pacific Ocean in 1788.

Structurally, Landfalls is a very interesting novel.  Williams chooses to write each chapter from the perspective of a different character, writing only about those times where the expedition’s ships make landfall as part of their voyage of exploration.  That allows her to explore the different members of the crew, their relationships with one another and their thoughts and feelings about the voyage.

Some of those chapters are intensely moving, in particular those dealing with the loss of life of some crew members at various points during the voyage.  We see the grief of those left behind, struggling to make sense of their loss and find ways of explaining it to distant family members.  In others, Williams shows the narrow and limited lives of those living in far-flung colonies.  The arrival of the expedition ships provides a welcome dose of excitement and fresh company that can have profound effects on those visited by the expedition.

Only two chapters are told from the perspective of female characters.  One of the chapters shows the disastrous loss of two of the ships longboats in a freak accident while surveying a harbour in Alaska.  The woman is one of the indigenous people from the tribe living in the area.  Towards the end of the novel, we see the end of the Laperouse expedition from the perspective of another indigenous woman, this time form the Solomon Islands.  Both women are left baffled by the strange Europeans visiting where they live, whether in a brief visit, or the survivors of the doomed expedition.

Overall, Landfalls is a fascinating and accomplished novel that allows Williams to showcase her skills as a writer.  Its braided narrative structure reminded me slightly of Ian Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, albeit with less close weaving between the individual storylines.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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