Williams makes an entertainingly erudite debut with a prismatic reimagining of the doomed French attempt to circumnavigate the globe in the 1780s.
With their "scientific mission paramount, no reasonable expense to be spared," captains Jean-Francois de Galaup de Lapérouse and Paul-Antoine-Marie Fleuriot, Viscount de Langle, set sail in 1785 aboard the Boussole and the Astrolabe. As the "savants" onboard—geologists, physicists, botanists—prepare to study the exotic, Williams’ narrative focuses on the human. Especially poignant is her illustration of how native cultures are poorly interpreted by European explorers celebrating the virtues of Enlightenment. From overweening functionaries and pretentious colonialists, captains and savants are soon forced to decipher personalities and politics. First at Concepción in Chile, where Governor General Ambrosio O’Higgins seeks peace with the Arauca; then Alaska, where they're perceived as "Snow Men…in winged war canoes" by bemused Alaska Natives; next Monterey in Alta, California, that visit rendered from the points of view of the governor’s wife, mission priests, and others; next Macao, opium and disobedience; followed by Petropavlovsk in far eastern Russia. There, translator Barthélemy de Lesseps leaves to carry expedition reports to Paris across frozen Siberia by way of St. Petersburg. Finally, in the Navigator Islands, the captains face massacre and then shipwreck. Page upon page reveal characters like the scientist Lamanon, "a genius, he has no time for manners," unmourned after being killed by rock-pelting South Sea islanders; and the conscientious Capt. Lapérouse, whose cabin is decorated with busts of Rousseau and Capt. Cook. Amid the seesawing boredom and terror of days at sea, William crafts an elegant and entrancing narrative to match her dissection of the landfalls. A moving epilogue concludes the narrative with de Lesseps identifying wreckage discovered on Vanikoro, knowing that "the globe we had tried so hard to complete [had swallowed] us whole."
Literary art of the first order, intelligent and evocative in the way of the best of historical fiction.