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Unusual and memorable novel of seafaring life from 1848 to 1945
on 29 January 2015
The story of life in Marstal, a Danish seafaring town, from 1848 to 1945, told through the stories of four people, three seafarers and one widow of a seafarer, who undergo the hardships of this life - wars including the two world wars, bullying first mates who can and do cause the deaths of those they're in charge of if they don't like them, bullying schoolteachers, and the ongoing bereavements suffered by women left behind in the town when the men have gone to sea. Then there are the intrinsic dangers of seafaring, notably on the Newfoundland route - very dangerous and the kind of life left to sailing ships when only ports like this haven't dredged and become suitable for diesel vessels. The story is told by a sort of Greek chorus consisting of the drowned of the town - this sound affected but actually it works really we'll...
The male characters are vividly brought to life and so is something of the life of the town - the town breakwater symbolises for one of the four heroes the kind of collective spirit that has enabled Marstal to grow and succeed. The plot is episodic in the nature of things, but the episodes are all enjoyable and inventive - you can never tell what will happen next and you want to find out. And no episode outstays its welcome. Indeed I was sad to reach the end of this book.
I found it a little less persuasive in its portrayal of the women and the anti-seafaring strategy of Kara Friis who tries hard to put an end to the business of seafaring in the town through a strategy of benign neglect of the opportunities for modernisation. (There are surely and obviously better strategies, like introducing alternative industry or opportunities to the town and it seems just unpersuasive that this wouldn't occur to her….)
Overall, however, I enjoyed this a great deal and would recommend it strongly to others.