Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
Translators (From Danish): Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder
Pages: 690 (Paperback)
In 1848 a motley crew of Danish sailors sets sail from the small town of Marstal to fight the Germans. Not all of them return – and those who do will never be the same again. Among them is daredevil Laurids Madsen, who promptly escapes to the anonymity of the high seas. Spanning four generations, two world wars and a hundred years, We, The Drowned is an epic tale of adventure, ruthlessness and passion.
So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And fuck me, if I don’t completely love it. Favourite book of 2012 by a huge margin. I can’t remember what made me pick this book up in the shop – probably the gorgeous cover and the fact the pages are edged in the same blue as the cover design (I’m a sucker for a pretty book) – but I am really glad I did. This is the reason I persist on ‘wasting my money’ impulse buying interesting looking books that I’ve never even heard of before; you might pick up a few duds but occasionally you stumble across something glorious that you’d never have been led to otherwise.
And now I’m left in the awkward position of trying to write a review for a book I totally adored. I’ve heard other people saying reviewing books you loved is harder than books you hated and I never really believed them – but it is. Whilst I loved this book it probably isn’t for everybody – in fact I’m sure it isn’t. And I know from experience that the quickest way you can get someone to dislike a book and notice its flaws is to build up their expectations by raving about it before they’ve read it… Oh welll…here goes…
We, The Drowned is a hard book to describe; at the surface level it’s just ‘the lives and adventures of the inhabitants of a Danish port town over a hundred years’ but that’s not really what it’s about. I tried describing it to my dad as ‘a Danish One Hundred Years of Solitude, but without the magical realism and about sailors instead of a gigantic Latin American family’ but that description strips One Hundred Years of Solitude of its key features and does both books a disservice. Both are brilliant books, both deal with the history of a place by telling the story of the people who lived there over multiple generations – but apart from that they’re completely different beasts and liking/hating one will not mean you have the same opinions about the other.
So I’ll try again… We, the Drowned is a massive book, 690 pages spanning 100 years and 3/4 (depending on your opinion of Klara) central characters. I agree with another reviewer that the story, though divided into four parts actually feels more like three different books that run into each other:
The first part was all about Laurids Madsen the man ‘who went up to heaven and came down thanks to his boots’, who starts off as a daredevil prankster but comes back from war with Germany with what would now be diagnosed as post traumatic stress. And it’s no wonder; the violence in the book is brutal and him and his companions are sailors, not soldiers. Combat on a sailing ship isn’t the bloodless carnage of something like Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s bloody and nasty; people soil themselves and go down screaming and sobbing like children, if someone gets a cannon shot to the head they don’t comically pick their skull back up and get on, their whole face is blown off. If they’re really unlucky they’ll survive it and go home to a family that doesn’t recognise them and doesn’t want to because it would mean acknowledging the person they loved before the war no longer exists. I haven’t read much stuff set on sailing ships beyond the odd Robert Louis Stevenson, but the battle seemed very real to me. Jensen doesn’t go overboard with description and purple prose but I could vividly see and imagine the whole thing. That said, I don’t know how well it measures up to a Hornblower or Master and Commander I’ll add them to my reading list.
Since it’s on the blurb it’s no spoiler to say that Laurids leaves Marstal soon afterwards, and the majority of this part is about his son Albert growing up without him and his later quest to find his father as soon as he’s old enough to go to sea. It’s old-fashioned adventure on the high seas stuff – shrunken heads, murders, cannibals, pearls, pokey little bars, brutal first mates, and ineffectual captains. But between the sailing and adventure there’s Marstal. Marstal is as much of a character as any of the central characters, maybe even more, not only does it ground all the characters into some sort of context but it grows and changes throughout the novel. In a stroke of genius all the Marstal scenes, or scenes where there are a lot of Marstalers present are told in the first person plural ‘we’. This ‘we’ is never acknowledged as a named character, there is no one narrator, but is the collective consciousness of the town itself: for Lauids this ‘we’ was the Marstal sailors who had been recruited for war alongside him, for Albert it is his peers, the Marstal schoolboys. I’ll admit it confused me at first but I grew to love it very quickly, it created a sort of understanding of the town and its people and a sense of inclusion that third person would simply have been too impersonal to portray. Without it the Marstal bits might have seemed like the ‘boring’ parts between adventures but, if anything, I almost came to love them more by the end of the book.
Which is good because the next portion of the book is entirely set there. After the Treasure Island-like adventures of his youth the book skips straight on to Albert as an old man living in Marstal. Although told in the ‘we’ it is really from Albert’s eyes that we see the approach and then the horrors of World War I and the effect it has on the town. And it’s chilling. As a history student, it’s embarrassing to admit but I’d never really looked at WWI from the standpoint of a neutral country and, though I’ve been taught over and over again about the horrors of the trenches, somehow no one ever mentions the war at sea and the sinking of ships. Here the trenches are absent, the suffering of the front lines barely noted, even the losses at sea are distant from the lives of people on the land – life goes on as normal. But, through Albert, we hear about the Marstal ships being shot down and sunk by players in a war they were not even part of. It’s a beautiful and depressing portrayal of war and the effect it has on people and places. As well as the war this part of the book is about growing old – the age of sail is all but dead and the world Albert knew has changed almost beyond recognition. Watching Albert come to grips with this, and the ways in which he deals with his lessening importance within the town is just as powerful, in its way, as the depiction of the distant war.
The third part takes us back to the sea with Knud Erik, a fatherless boy Albert mentored as a child, and his mother Klara. Knud Erik wants nothing more than to be a sailor like both Albert and his father, Klara, meanwhile hates the sea for taking her husband, and so many others, and leaving the women of Marstal in a constant state of grief and uncertainty. She’s the first major female character in the book, and I could take a lot of issues with her but, though she claims to speak for ‘the women’, in the end she’s just about well enough developed that she’s only really speaking for herself, something that becomes more and more apparent as the story goes on. I’m still not sure what I think of her, I certainly understand her, and I appreciate her growing into a strong woman who doesn’t use sex as a tool buuut…well, there’s just something not entirely likable about her. Despite the tension it causes, Knud Erik, does of course become a sailor. First sailing on sailing ships as a teenager; having adventures reminiscent of his mentor Albert’s – cruel first mate’s, vicious storms, murder at sea, icebergs. Then, once the age of the sailing ship is truly over, on steam and then mechanical ships, serving on the allied merchant convoys of World War II.
This again was an entirely different perspective on the War than anything I’d ever read about it before. What the ships docked in London did during air raids is something I’d never really thought about. Nor the horrors of the ‘keep going, don’t stop to rescue anyone’ order given to convoys when one of their number got struck by a u-boat. It gave me a new appreciation for the men who risked their lives, without lifting weapons, to help in the war effort.
All in all a brilliant book – I haven’t mentioned half of the bits I would want to talk about for fear of spoilers. It’s bleak and depressing and certainly not for everyone, but I loved it. Some bits were predictable – I knew what would happen to Karo the moment he appeared, same with the ‘free men’ in the hold and several other characters, but it didn’t seem ‘predictable’ so much as ‘inevitable, given how the characters around them are sketched’ and, instead of rolling my eyes when it happened I was gripped and unable to tear myself away from my book as I watching the build up and then the fall out. Other bits weren’t so predictable; the first ‘romance’ especially left me reeling with an ‘I should have expected that’.
It had its flaws of course – sometimes characters we’d been introduced to reappeared in unlikely places – but nothing too unforgivable. There wasn’t much chance for female characters to shine and the one that did appear as a sailor late in the book I was unconvinced by, but I think that’s the nature of the setting – women weren’t given chances to shine. The adventures were, for the most part, gripping and the Marstal parts were beautiful and really gave a sense of the community there beyond just the main few characters – it wasn’t just ‘main character, his immediate family, and some other people to bulk up the population count’ who lived there – the town was a living breathing character in itself. The use of ‘we’ for the parts set in Marstal worked incredibly well, and wasn’t something I’d really seen done before. The perspectives through which both World War I and II were told were unusual but even more powerful for that.
All in all I just kinda loved it and will be on the lookout for anything else written by Carsten Jensen from now on.