Excerpt from Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Naomi J. Williams

Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams X
Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 336 pages
    Dec 2016, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Sinéad Fitzgibbon
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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.

Excerpted from Landfalls by Naomi J Williams. Copyright © 2015 by Naomi J Williams. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & 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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