To say that this debut novel is thoroughly delightful may sound too dismissive of what is a deeply researched and ingeniously told story, but there it is: it’s a joy to read. The book is a reimagining of the Lapérouse expedition, which set sail from France in 1785 on an ambitious scientific voyage to explore beyond the boundaries of the known world, and was not heard from again after it departed Botany Bay in 1788. Virtually none of the story takes place while the two ships of the expedition—the Boussole and the Astrolabe—are underway, since it is in fact about the landfalls that the voyage makes. The story is told chronologically, starting with the outfitting of the voyage’s state-of-the-art navigational equipment in England, and moving forward on the journey to Chile, Alaska, Macao, Russia, and beyond.
Differences in geography aside, what gives this story its unique appeal is that each chapter is told from a different person’s point of view. Various members of the expedition, their relatives, people they meet, even some whom they don’t, are all represented here, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even as letters or reports. Each one is believable and fully rendered, in equal measures to dramatic, comedic, or tragic effect. The language Williams uses for each of her characters is immediately accessible, even modern, and yet it feels genuine to the time, place, and person.
A significant historical record exists of this voyage that never returned, and it’s clear that Williams used much of it. This novel must have been a vast undertaking, but the reader sees none of that heavy lifting. Instead Williams simply weaves in the details that allow her to take her readers around the world on a wondrous journey of discovery.