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A salty epic that may become a modern classic
on 9 June 2010
This is truly an epic tale, covering nearly a century from 1848, when Laurids Madsen and other men of the small Danish Baltic town of Marstal go to war to fight the Germans, up to the end of the second world war. The main focus is on Laudris' son Albert Madsen, whose sea-faring adventures include shipwrecking and cannibal attacks as he searches for his lost father and in so doing realises more about his own self. On his return he establishes himself as a sea captain and ship owner, and in old age, befriends the second main character, Knud Erik Friis, a small boy who grows up to become a sailor himself against his mother's wishes. It is through his eyes that we see the Second World War, as he becomes a man and, along with other Marstal natives, fights against the Nazis.
We follow Albert through nearly his entire life, and watch Knud grow up. For most of the book there is the almost ghost like narration of an unseen chorus, the "we" of the title that just adds to the novel's captivating tone. The other main voice of the author is the middle part of this huge book told in the first person by Albert himself as he quests to find his father. This is just as well-written.
There's a strong supporting cast as well including Knud's childhood friend Anton, the Terror of Marstal, Klara, Knud's slightly scary mother, Herman the Seagull Killer, and Albert's captain Jack Lewis. And then of course, there's the sea with it's promise of riches and adventure and ever-present threat of death ....
The book is an epic in every sense. It's sprawling, far reaching and encompassing a variety of kinds of stories. It's an adventure story, a romance, a coming-of-age story, a war tale, a drama, and a comedy. But what stands out is the quality of the writing. And the final pages are sublime. It may be a monster in length, but it's never dull and gripping throughout. Surely a candidate for this year's literary prizes? I cannot recommend this highly enough.