Translated from Danish by Charlotte Barslund
Published: 2011 by Vintage
My copy: bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “Everyone in our town has a story but it’s not the one he tells himself. Its author has a thousand eyes, a thousand ears and five hundred pens that never stop scribbling.”
This truly epic narrative contains shades of many of my other favourite works of literature. Like Moby Dick it is an epic sea story that explores the nature of obsession and the power of the ocean both to inspire and to destroy. Like One Hundred Years of Solitude it follows the fortunes of one town and its eccentric cast of inhabitants over the course of a turbulent century, combining the unlikely and the harrowing with a pervading sense of romance. But these echoes of other great works should not diminish the originality of Jensen’s distinctly Scandinavian narrative which tells the history of three generations of sailors from the Danish shipping town of Marstal.
The book begins and ends with the horrors of War. In 1848 Laurids Madsen and his neighbours are ill-prepared combatants in the First Schleswig War while a century later, Knud Erik Friis – Laurids’ descendant in spirit if not in blood – runs the gauntlet of bombers and U-boats on the northern naval frontier of World War Two. But the main character in We, The Drowned is really the sea. Bursting with marine adventures – including shipwrecks, mutiny and an ocean-spanning quest for an errant father – the life-and-death draw of the sea for the Marstal menfolk is never out of focus; but the ‘We’ of the title includes the women too. Anchored at home, the lives of Marstal’s mothers, wives and children are also dictated by the sea. The middle section of the book deals primarily with Knud Erik’s mother who resents the sea for stealing away the town’s men even as she struggles to accept the waves as the source of Marstal’s wealth and solidarity. This section was slower in pace than the rest of the book, but packed a real emotional punch.
So it may be only the second novel I’ve finished this year but I won’t be surprised if We, The Drowned resurfaces on my ‘books of the year’ list because it is quite simply a masterpiece. I laughed, I cried, I pondered and now that the book is finished I feel a loss. I mourn the absence of the sailors I have got to know over the course of the novel’s almost 700 pages. Like the women of Marstal I mourn them, but I know too that my life has been enriched by the experience of having known them.