Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Book Review: Landfalls, by Naomi Williams

I have been wanting to review this book for quite some time, but as you know, the last few weeks have been full of preoccupying matters. Now it is my great pleasure to get to this wonderful book.

In Landfalls, author Naomi Williams traces the ill-fated expedition of the 18th century French naval officer and explorer Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse. In 1785 he set off with two frigates under his command on a round the world expedition to chart flora and fauna and map new areas of exploration.

Williams has done her research, but it’s her storytelling that brings the expedition alive and makes a reader care about these explorers and seamen from another era. They made it as far as Botany Bay, Australia, in January of 1788, after landfalls in Chile, Easter Island, Hawaii, Alaska, Monterey, Japan, Russia, and Samoa among other sites. Setting off from Australia for New Caledonia in the Pacific with plans to be home by June, 1789, they simply disappeared. Later rescue expeditions yielded evidence that Lapérouse’s ships had wrecked on the reefs near Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands and that a small group of survivors built a boat and sailed away, never to be seen again.

Williams bases each story at a different landfall, narrating it through the perspective of a different member of the expedition and sometimes one of the locals. Each voice is distinct from the others, yet every story is consistent in its elegance of tone, capturing interactions in a way that reverberates long after, the way a bell tone keeps echoing after the clapper is stilled. And while this collection of individual stories tells the larger story of the voyage, each can stand alone.

Her story openings are brilliant examples of the age old advice to “hook” a reader. Consider:

From “Lamanon at Sea”
Lamanon has two years, three months, and fifteen days to live. He does not know this, of course. He has no inkling of what is to come.

From “Concepción”
How strange that the town was not there.

From “Snow Men”
There is a big disagreement in my family about what happens if you drown and your body is never found.

From “A Monography on Parasites”
They did not even get his name right when they came to apprehend him.

How can you not read on? When you do read on, these stories capture more than an ill-fated voyage of long ago. They are cautionary tales, signposts reminding one that no matter how well-intentioned one’s own voyage, obliviousness has long range consequences.  

You can visit Naomi Williams at her website: Naomi J. Williams
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Rosi said...

This sounds like a really riveting book. Thanks for the review.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Rosi. It is riveting. It works both as novel and story collection, and Naomi's writing is really elegant.

Kate Larkindale said...

Sounds like a great read. I will see if I can find it on my next library visit.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kate. I'm sure it is in libraries. Have a great day.

Mark said...

Fascinating story! People were made of sterner stuff then, I guess:)

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Mark, yes. I certainly would not have wanted to be on a ship in those days. Wrecks weren't that uncommon.

Tanya Reimer said...

Awesome review of a very interesting piece. Thanks for sharing.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Tanya. Glad you liked the review. Hope your own writing is going well.

Sandra Cox said...

Great review, Elizabeth. Thanks for posting.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Sandra, glad you enjoyed it. Have a good week.

Vicki Lane said...

Sounds fascinating and what excellent opening lines!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Vicky. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I omitted one very gripping opening line, as it was used in the July/August issue of Poets and Writers in the section called "The Aha! Moment. The opening line for that story is, "We hauled the wounded aboard the frigates--"

Naomi J. Williams said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond to your generous review! I especially appreciated your calling-out of some of my "first lines." I like those lines too. :-)

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Glad you liked the review, Naomi. It was a great book!