Long-listed for the NBCC's John Leonard Prize
A Seattle Times Best Book of the Year
The gripping story of a dramatic eighteenth-century voyage of discovery from Naomi J. Williams
In 1785, the Lapérouse expedition left Brest with two frigates, more than two hundred men, and overblown ideals and expectations, in a brave attempt to circumnavigate the globe for science and the glory of France. This astonishingly inventive novel charts the course of their adventure.
Deeply grounded in historical fact but refracted through a powerful imagination, Naomi J. Williams's Landfalls follows the exploits and heartbreaks not only of the men on the ships but also of the people affected by the voyagenatives and other Europeans the explorers encountered, loved ones left waiting at home, and those who survived and remembered the expedition later. By turns comic, elegiac, and profound, Landfalls is an absorbing tale of the high seas and the world on the cusp of a new era.
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About the Author
Naomi J. Williams lives in Northern California with her family. Landfalls is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
By Naomi J. Williams
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Naomi J. Williams
All rights reserved.
ITEMS FOR EXCHANGE
London, April 1785
He always forgets how unpleasant the crossing from Calais is. He's never once made the trip without encountering inclement weather, contrary winds and tides, unexplained delays, seasick fellow travelers, surly packet captains, or dishonest boatmen waiting to extort the passengers ashore. This time it's all of the above. By the time he reaches Dover, he has, of course, missed the stagecoach to London. He spends the night at the Ship Hotel, where he endures a hard, flea-ridden bed and a neighbor with a wet, defeated cough.
It's not an auspicious start to the journey. But Paul-Mérault de Monneron is not given to superstition. The next day brings springlike weather, a passable meal from the hotel kitchen, the stagecoach ready to leave on time, and an unsmiling but efficient coachman who gives the correct change. The only other passenger inside the coach is a man Monneron recognizes from the packet; the poor man had been gray-skinned with nausea most of the way from France. "Well, I daresay we are being compensated for yesterday's horrors," the man says. Monneron nods politely, although he doesn't agree. For him, the universe is not given to compensating one for past miseries any more than it exacts payment for one's successes. But he is not immune to the pleasures of a smooth ride on a lovely day. The Kentish countryside, or such of it as he can see through the coach window, is charming. Once he points out the window at a large bird, white-breasted with black and white wings, perched atop a post. "Please — what do you call that?" he asks. "I do not know the word in English."
The man leans over. "That would be an osprey, I think," he says.
"Osprey." It's rare that he learns a word in English he finds nicer than its counterpart in French. But "osprey" is undoubtedly lovelier than "balbuzard."
The brief exchange leads inevitably to an inquiry about Monneron's trip to London. Almost everything he says by way of reply is true: That he's a naval engineer, that he's leaving soon for the South Seas, that he's going to London to make some purchases for the voyage, that he was tasked with the errand because he speaks English — "Not that my English is so good," he adds, to which the man says, "Nonsense! You've hardly any accent at all." But part of Monneron's account is not true: 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. Monneron will be sailing with neither Spaniards nor merchants. There is, in fact, no Don Inigo.
It's a French naval expedition he represents, a voyage of exploration meant to compete with the accomplishments of the late Captain Cook, a voyage that is supposed to be secret until it departs. This excursion to London is not just a shopping trip for books and instruments. He's supposed to find out the latest on antiscorbutics — scurvy-prevention measures — and on what items work best for trading with natives in the South Seas. For this he needs to find someone who sailed with Cook — someone both knowledgeable and willing to talk.
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 traveling under a pretext — had, in fact, challenged the need for secrecy at all, and when the minister of marine dismissed his query with an impatient wave of his beruffled hand, had considered turning the mission down. Considered it, but not seriously or for very long. There was no question of jeopardizing his place on the expedition. He would have stood on his head before the court of Versailles if required. Still, when the Spanish merchant ruse was first concocted, he'd burst out laughing. "Don Inigo Alvarez?" 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." So far, at least, he has proved right: Monneron's companion nods, interested, impressed, and apparently convinced.
Five Nights' Advance
The stagecoach arrives in London the following evening, and Monneron secures lodgings with a Mrs. Towe, recommended to him by his brother Louis, who often travels to London on business. The house smells unaccountably of stale cider, but it meets Monneron's most basic requirements — clean bed, convenient location, quiet landlady — and a couple of unusual ones — first, the absence of other lodgers, and second, a windowless storage room to which only he and Mrs. Towe will have a key.
Before going to sleep, he calculates his expenses since landing in Dover: a night's stay and meals at the Ship Hotel, then sixteen shillings and eight pence for the stagecoach, plus the fee for his baggage and a tip for the driver, not to mention a half crown for every meal and one night's lodging en route, and now, five nights paid in advance to Mrs. Towe. He's spent almost all of the English currency the minister gave him before he left. His first task the next day will be to go to the bank. So far he's had few choices about his expenditures, but now that he's in London, he'll be faced with myriad decisions, most of which will involve money. He can't spend too much, of course. But it might be worse to spend too little. He doesn't wish to squander the ministry's faith in him, of course. Above all, he doesn't wish to disappoint Monsieur de Lapérouse, the commander of the expedition. Staring up at Mrs. Towe's water-stained ceiling, Monneron reflects that there's still time to appoint another engineer — and plenty of ambitious young men of good family eager to take his place.
He wakes early, consumes without enjoyment Mrs. Towe's weak tea and cold toast, then faces the delicate task of getting dressed. For the past three days he's been hidden under an overcoat and top boots, but now he'll be entering establishments and homes, making impressions, gathering information. He doesn't wish to call attention to himself by looking too French, too naval, too fashionable, or not fashionable enough. Louis has advised him to dress more soberly than a gentleman his age in Paris might, but Monneron's not sure what that means. With all his years at sea, he's quite used to dressing himself — in uniform. Civilian clothes are another matter altogether. In the end, he puts on the plainest linen shirt he owns and a pair of ribbed white stockings, and over them a suit he's borrowed from Antoine, another brother who is the same height as he. The waistcoat, breeches, and frock coat are all of the same, dark-blue woven silk — even the buttons are covered. Then he dons wig, shoes, and overcoat, in that order. He hesitates before picking up the thin, tasseled cane that Louis had pressed him to take instead of his sword. "Don't carry a sword or a hat," his brother had told him. "They will mark you as a Frenchman and an effeminate."
On his way out, Monneron appraises himself in the smoky mirror in Mrs. Towe's entrance hall. He looks like a Frenchman who is trying not to look French, he thinks. And he hates the cane. What an absurd country, in which wearing a sword makes one effeminate but carrying a beribboned walking stick does not.
He steps out into the fetid, fog-drizzled streets and makes his way to the Bank of England, where he exchanges letters of credit for more cash than he's ever seen in one place, much less carried upon his person. He's grateful for Antoine's tailor, who's adopted the innovation of interior pockets in frock coats. It's a place to stow the money. Still, he hurries into a cab, afraid the smell of so many bank bills will attract every pickpocket in London, and asks to be taken to an address on Oxford Street.
Monneron has another letter with him that morning — a letter of introduction to John Webber, a painter who was the official artist on Cook's last voyage. Monneron would have preferred an introduction to officers who'd served with Cook, but according to the minister, most of the officers who aren't dead are at sea, and of the small number who are neither dead nor at sea, two live too far outside London and the others are too highly placed to approach without arousing suspicion. "What about Cook's naturalists?" Monsieur de Lapérouse had asked. "Can't we approach one of them?" No, the minister said. Solander was dead. The Forsters were both in Prussia. Only Sir Joseph Banks, the famous naturalist from the first Cook expedition, was still alive and in London, but he was now president of the Royal Society and close to both the Admiralty and the king. "Don't underestimate the usefulness of an artist as a source," the minister said. Monneron and Lapérouse had exchanged a glance, neither man convinced. What would a draughtsman know of antiscorbutics or appropriate items for exchange?
The cab deposits him before a narrow, dignified residence on Oxford Street. The door is opened by a narrow, dignified servant. The man takes Monneron's letter of introduction and soon after escorts him into a parlor where a man in a silk damask morning gown with a matching cap is finishing breakfast. When he looks up, Monneron is shocked by his youth.
"You expected an old man," Webber says.
Monneron cannot deny it. It's been only five years since Cook's third and final voyage returned to England without him, but it has already achieved the status of legend, and yes, one expects those who sailed with him to be grizzled old men.
"I was only twenty-four when the expedition began," Webber explains. Monneron makes some mental calculations: Webber is younger than he is.
The artist invites his guest to sit down, then has his manservant bring another place setting. Monneron puts up only a nominal protest before making quick work of strong, hot tea, smoked herring, a slice of cold veal pie, and a roll with marmalade.
"So," Webber says, "you're going to the South Seas."
Monneron nods through a mouthful, then tells him about Don Inigo and the need for scientific books and instruments. Also, information on antiscorbutics. And advice about appropriate items for exchange with natives.
Webber nods. "How long are you here?"
"Friday?" The artist sets his teacup down before laughing. "You're going to be rather busy, Mr. Monneron." He meets Monneron's eyes with a look at once frank and challenging. "I'm not sure how useful I can be to you. I'm no sailor."
Monneron is inclined to agree, but doesn't say so. "I know you returned from the voyage with hundreds of paintings," he says, remembering what the minister said about artists. "You cannot have done so without learning many things."
Webber holds his gaze for a moment, then pushes back from the table. "Come with me," he says.
Webber's library is high-ceilinged, white-walled, lit by small windows above the bookcases. Books occupy the upper shelves; the lower shelves are filled with art and objects. "It's all from the voyage," he says. The drawings are his, he explains, sketches and paintings executed during the voyage; the rest are items he found, purchased, or was given.
Monneron steps forward to examine the drawings. They include landscapes and topographical views, botanical drawings and sketches of birds and lizards, portraits of natives and studies of their homes and canoes, and numerous scenes — natives dancing, feasting, receiving Cook, burying their dead. The drawings are of various sizes, but many are larger than Monneron expected, some an arm's length across. He tries to imagine his silk-gowned young host working on the busy deck of the Resolution, or pitching about in one of its smaller boats, or walking around a newly discovered island, all the while managing these large sheets of paper and drawing supplies, perhaps an easel as well, and it seems at once impossible, comic, and noble. "They're marvelous," he says.
"You're very kind," Webber says. They're standing before a portrait of a native man. The man has something long and thin thrust through his upper ear. His hair is up in a sort of topknot tied with string, and he has copious, though close-shaved, facial hair; he looks like a pleasant creature, except for the odd ear ornament. "He was from Mangea," Webber says. The expedition didn't land on the island, he goes on to explain, but men came out in canoes to trade with the ships, and this man — "his name was Mourua" — had been persuaded to come on board. "He was shaking with fright. I thought any moment he might fling himself overboard."
Monneron studies the painting a moment longer before venturing to say, "He does not look frightened."
Webber laughs. "That's because we gave him a knife in exchange for some fish and coconuts," he says. "That's what he's got in his ear. They all had these slits in one ear, the men of that island. Mourua slipped his knife right in like it had been made for the purpose." He suggests Monneron advise Don Inigo to take a supply of similar knives, as they had proved popular with all the islanders they met. "I can show you where to purchase them," he says.
Monneron turns to Webber. "You see? You are already helping me." He hopes he doesn't look as surprised as he feels.
Webber draws Monneron's attention to his collection of objects — a headdress, ornaments, carvings in wood and bone, Tahitian dresses. He remembers everything: the provenance of each item, the circumstances by which it came into his possession, the appearance and behavior of the natives there, what they were willing to trade, and for what. Monneron is amazed. If only he can keep himself in this man's company for the week, he thinks, his mission will be largely accomplished.
Their circumnavigation of the library complete, Webber opens the door leading back toward the parlor. On an impulse, Monneron says, "Do you still paint portraits, Mr. Webber?"
"My reputation is mostly in landscapes," Webber says, then watches Monneron's gaze travel around the room, taking in all the native faces. "Portraits of natives are really a kind of landscape painting too," he says. "Why do you ask?"
"I'm going away for so long — anything can happen — I thought — only if you have time, of course ..." Monneron says, his discomfort entirely real.
"You want me to paint you?"
Monneron laughs, embarrassed. "It would be for my mother. But you must be busy."
"Not as busy as you this week."
Monneron's face warms. Indeed, he's just shared with this man a long list of tasks he has less than a week to complete; this request for a portrait must sound absurd and vain. "Perhaps something quick, just in pencil or pen," he says, "like one of these sketches from the voyage." He stops, abashed to think he's just characterized Webber's work as something one can simply dash off. He puts a hand to his forehead, aware that it's a nervous gesture people — women especially — find disarming.
Webber is smiling at him. "I'd be delighted to paint you."
Monneron laughs with relief. "I don't know how these things work," he says. "Is twenty-five guineas an appropriate fee?"
Webber shakes his head. "That's not necessary."
"It is necessary."
After some haggling, Webber reluctantly agrees to five guineas. He apologizes — he'd be happy to begin straightaway, but has engagements the rest of the day. Can Monneron return tomorrow?
"Come around three," Webber says. "The light is best in my studio then."
Monneron has one more document on his person — a shopping list drawn up by Monsieur de Lapérouse himself. The minister had not been altogether pleased by it: "'English' does not mean 'better,'" he declared. "We have instrument makers in Paris!" But Lapérouse had insisted. "We bring no glory to France by traveling with inferior instruments made at home," he said. The minister relented, and now Monneron is on his way to the Fleet Street atelier of George Adams, Jr., to purchase several of the world's finest compasses.
Mr. Adams is a young man — not yet thirty-five, Monneron thinks — who inherited from his father both his business and his position as instrument maker to the king. Mr. Adams does not suffer from false modesty. Indeed, he doesn't suffer from modesty of any kind. He subjects Monneron to questioning as if to determine whether his new customer is worthy of his wares. "Inigo Alvarez?" he says with a sniff. "Never heard of him."
"Ah, but 'e knows of you, Monsieur Adams," Monneron says, exaggerating his accent.
The combination of flattery and Frenchness prevails, and Adams is persuaded to part with two azimuth compasses. They're beautiful in their simplicity, each hand-painted compass face with its durable steel needle seated in a glass-covered brass housing suspended from an outer brass ring, which in turn is affixed to a wooden box, all of it designed to withstand the motions at sea. Unfortunately, Mr. Adams has no dipping needles — used to adjust compass readings, essential on a long voyage into unknown parts. Monsieur de Lapérouse has especially requested them — two, in fact, one for each of the expedition's ships.
Excerpted from Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams. Copyright © 2015 Naomi J. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Galley Stoves,
1. Items for Exchange,
2. Lamanon at Sea,
4. Snow Men,
5. Cenotaph Island,
7. Letters from Monterey,
8. A Monograph on Parasites,
10. The Report,
11. Among the Mangroves,
12. Skull House,
Epilogue: Folie à Plusieurs,
A Note About the Author,