Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Review: Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams

First line: No one knew what to make of the new galley stoves when they arrived.

I first read this book in 2015 and adored it, and I was delighted when my book club selected it to read last month. Rereading it reminded me of what is so fabulous about this book, and I think it might be edging into one of my top ten all time favorite books. (!)

As with all the books I adore, I feel like I can't adequately explain why I loved it so and what about it was so compelling. In this case, it's everything -- the premise, the characters, the narrative style -- and this reread had me once again breathless in awe.

Williams recounts the late 18th century voyage of the Astrolabe and Boussole, two French frigates tasked with further global exploration, scientific inquiry, and cartographic correction. Each chapter follows a different crew member, and details the dramatic and tragic journey of the two ships.

I hesitate to say too much about what happened (don't google before reading) because much of my pleasure derived from learning about the voyage as I read. Williams beautiful articulates each character and every chapter is infused with tragic humanity; we're given hints of the fate to come, and can only watch everything unfold.

Though focused on the French sailors, Williams still includes point of view from the indigenous communities the expedition met as well as women, which I greatly appreciated. While it's obvious she has keen sympathy for the French expedition, she doesn't make light of their hubris and colonialism, nor does she exoticize the indigenous populations the expedition meets (no cafe au lait skin comparisons!).

The narrative style changes depending on the character, but even though we shift points of view, there is still rich emotional resonance in every offering. I teared up more than once -- I actually miss some of these characters! -- and I still feel breathless awe at Williams' skill in evoking emotion, place, and era so efficiently.

I first read this book at the beach in 2015, cracking up my wife and mother because I kept gasping aloud every few pages; later that year, my brother -- who has pretty divergent reading tastes -- called me to recommend this book, having loved it himself. Regardless of whether you're a fan of historical fiction or not, if you enjoy books of very human foible and weakness, hope and aspiration, consider this novel -- I think you'll find it compelling.

Title: Landfalls
Author: Naomi J. Williams

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 18th Century / Nautical / Exploration)
Publisher/Publication Date: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (8/4/2015)
Source: Library
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

1 comment :

  1. I am a fan of history in all forms and this one is just up my street.