The following three reviews first appeared in the August 2015 online and print editions of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.
LANDFALLS, Naomi J. Williams, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 311 pp
To say that Landfalls, Naomi J. Williams’ 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 stat-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.
THE BURIED GIANT, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 317 pp
In considering the synopsis of his seventh novel, The Buried Giant, long-time fans of Kazuo Ishiguro’s restrained and always-compelling prose may find themselves puzzled at what seems like a departure for him: in sixth century Britain, in a primitive land of fog, rain, ogres, and dragons, an old married couple decides finally to visit a son they haven’t seen in years. They cannot remember what caused their separation, and they’re not even sure which village he lives in. In fact, none of their fellow villagers seem able to form or keep memories, nor do they notice the lack. Nonetheless, Axl and Beatrice are determined to overcome the fog of forgetfulness as they set out on a fraught journey. Along the way, they pick up traveling companions who are on quests of their own, and begin to recover fragments of their lost memory, little of it comforting. Together, they find answers to the mysteries that have plagued them and their country for an age, though the discovery seems destined to unleash even greater woe. This is an Arthurian fairy tale for grown-ups, and one that asks quietly pointed questions, such as how much of a person’s identity is held in the memories she carries, or whether, when it comes to seeking justice—or is it simply vengeance?—for a great wrong, it isn’t better for everyone to let sleeping dragons lie.
In Ishiguro’s hands, the tale seems less fantastic than simply of another time, when ogres and pixies were part of the natural landscape, much like wooly mammoths on the ancient Siberian plain. Characters interact with a formality that seems almost Kabuki-like, but it feels organic to the time and place. And by now, Ishiguro’s fans should no longer be surprised at how he can still surprise us.
THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, VOLUME 1: SEARCH FOR MY HEART: A NOVEL, Larry Kramer, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015, 880 pp
In his latest novel, Larry Kramer wonders at the masochistic tendencies of Americans, to have invited the likes of Cotton Mather and John Winthrop to judge us so harshly and to instill in us an abiding shame over everything that makes us human. He seems to count on that masochism, however, to imagine people will read this book, 800+ pages of painful and ugly history tracing the origin of both America and what he calls the UC: the Underlying Condition, HIV/AIDS.
The conceit here is that Kramer’s alter ego Fred Lemish is writing this history, and he collects around him a cast of oddball characters who contribute their knowledge and scholarship to the effort. Lemish starts this history in pre-human times to argue that the UC has been with us always, biding its time. We even hear directly from the UC, self-aware and plotting its own advancement. The volume simply quits sometime after WWII. Presumably Volume II brings us into present day.
This book wants to grab Americans by their lapels, shake them, and bellow, “Stop with the blind hero worship, the whitewashed legends of this country! Stop imagining that it was noble and high-minded! It was ugly! It’s still ugly! Stop ignoring all the evidence that’s right in front of you!” But Kramer can’t have it both ways. He argues that only heterosexuals or closeted gays have written history, chronically hiding unpleasant truths, but here he is hiding his version of history inside of a novel, thereby letting himself and his readers off the hook.
It’s odd that Kramer calls this Search for My Heart, since he hammers home an image of an America that is heartless, brutal, rapacious, and cruel. This is the book that only Kramer could write, but for whom has he written it?