Doomed voyage of discovery uncovers a hoard of hidden treasures, writes Ashley Davies
Little, Brown, £14.99
IN 1785, just over a decade after James Cook’s second epic voyage on behalf of the British government, France sent two well-equipped frigates, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, on a challenging journey of scientific and geographical discovery.
In the years immediately prior to the Revolution, Louis XVI ploughed a small fortune into the knowledge and glory-seeking expedition, which would take in Tenerife, Chile, Alaska, California, Macao, eastern and central Russia, Australia and the Solomon Islands.
But the journey was marred by tragedy and a degree of mystery, and this ambitious historical novel by Naomi Williams brings it all to life with accomplished, vivid storytelling from the point of view of some of the higher ranking men on board – the senior naval officers, “savants” (scientific experts) and individuals with whom they came into contact on land. We get a tantalising glimpse into the personal motivations, dreams and weaknesses of those who have left their homes far behind. And early on Williams sprinkles hints that all will not go as planned.
For example, when we first meet the ambitious, thick-skinned and hard-to-like (but fabulous to write) physicist, botanist, geologist and meteorologist, Jean-Honore-Robert de Paul, Chevalier de Lamanon, we read: “Lamanon has two years, three months and fifteen days to live. He does not know this, of course.”
The first episode of fatal misfortune takes place in Lituya Bay in Alaska, and we learn about it in a chapter told from the point of view of an indigenous girl who has observed the event unfolding from a distance.
The crew encounter other intriguing members of the opposite sex on their journey, such as an intelligent young woman in Chile, who is trapped in mismatched wedlock, and an opium addict pining for her lost love in Macau.
We learn a little something from everyone we spend time with. From Paul-Merault de Monneron, the chief engineer, we learn a little of the planning and secrecy required ahead of such a trip (from surreptitiously learning from the English how to prevent scurvy to the value of installing ovens in order to have fresh bread); and from the captain, Jean-François de Galaup de Lapérouse – and a later chapter about his family – we pick up information about the complicated class structures in France, as well as the agony of losing men under his command.
One of Williams’ many virtues lies in her skill at illustrating the strength of relationships that must inevitably develop in these intense, tough environments. A memorable chapter focuses on Barthélemy de Lesseps, who is only on board in order to translate for the crew when they reach Russia, after which he has to take an arduous overland journey to deliver to the French ambassador in St Petersburg the Holy Grail – a box of dispatches recording the mission’s findings.
He is accompanied and protected on his own journey by a Russian officer, Golikoff, and the latter’s devotion to Lesseps is just beautifully drawn – as comical as it is moving, particularly during moments when Lesseps’ life appears to be ebbing away.
Another chapter, in which a shipwreck survivor, who has started a new family in the Solomon Islands, spots a passing ship, is heart-poundingly involving and seasoned with some gritty anthropology.
The tantalising storytelling, solid research, wit and humanity at the heart of this thoroughly engaging book leave you desperate to know more about every single character – as well as many we don’t even get to meet properly – for a very long time after the story has ended. It deserves a huge audience.