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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
We, The Drowned
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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.
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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.
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on 31 May 2015
At first I found this, not difficult exactly, more not interesting. Having given up after about 50 pages (it has nearly 700) I went back to it (only because I needed something to read for an hour) and I was hooked. Hardly put it down again till it was finished. Can't say I loved it, or would read it again but I did, in a strange way, really enjoy it.
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on 17 July 2010
This was not at all the book I was expecting, but it ended up as a very readable novel relating the history of three generations of sailors from one town in Denmark, from the mid 1800s to the end of the Second World War. At the very beginning it seemed all fantasy or myth, and I felt the book might not be for me, but as I went on it emerged as the moving, funny and tragic tale of a series of wonderfully stoic people. Their adventures could have been far-fetched but somehow didn't feel that unlikely. In fact at the end, which was the point when I almost burst into tears, I wanted to know what would happen next. My grandfather was Danish and I know a little of the history of that nation and I feel that Mr Jensen had really done his homework on the people and town of Marstal. A great read.
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on 29 October 2011
I am a middle aged woman and I bought this book second hand as I was going on a week to Denmark and wanted something topical. The subject was not one I would ever have dreamt of picking up. I was dreading having to read it and put it off until I was in the plane to C'hagen with nothing else to read. I never read mariner stories and thought I had very little interest in them or in the sea. I avoid boats and waves at all costs. But this book is fabulous. I really can't recommend it highly enough. Beautifully written, gripping not just with sea adventures, but with an enormous scope....of human lives, motivations and morality. It will be a classic. I can't do it justice. Pick it up and read it. Every time I put it down I would bore my whole family with how it is the best book that I have ever read, and I read a lot!!
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on 26 May 2012
Until recently, my reading has been restricted to non-fiction during a research project and this book probably gained something in my estimation because of this. I bought it about a year ago and have been itching to read it as I found the subject matter appealing, which was confirmed when I read a few random passages prior to purchase. I was also attracted by the interesting cover design and blueing on the pages made it stand out in the historical fiction section of the book shop.

I had thought that I may have built it up too much in my mind due to this long wait but 'We, The Drowned' did not disappoint me. In fact, it exceeded my expectations and is a marvellous book. Jensen writes in a deceptively simplistic style that makes it a very easy read. Indeed, I was surprised that it was translated from Danish as the narrative flows so well in English and I think Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder (Jensen's translators) deserve a mention for their excellent work in this regard.

I found the subject matter utterly compelling with a selection of stories and different characters covering the period between 1848-1945. The first 200 pages were fantastic and, while it slowed a little after that, it rapidly regained pace when the character of Knud Erik became the main focus of the narrative.

The storyline covers an immense range of topics (including three major wars) but excels when it comes to examining the characters and motives of the main protagonists. The fact that I missed some characters (such as Laurids and Albert Madsen) as they fell by the wayside reveals what a good job the author has done in this regard. Jensen doesnt shy away from tales of violence, war, murder, loss and cruelty in this book and they exert a disturbingly magnetic appeal. Yet there is also a great deal of humour concerned and this combination makes his work a fascinating and exciting read.

This is an incredible book that covers a wide range of subject matter in epic fashion. At 693 pages, some readers might find it's size intimidating but the text is easily good enough to sustain the reader's interest throughout. Indeed, I read it avidly and my only disappointment is that it wasn't longer.

Jensen deserves the excellent reviews he has received and this may well become a classic as some reviewers have already commented. This is an exceptional historical novel and deserves to do very well indeed.
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on 2 June 2010
An epic tale describing the lives and jouneys of sailors from the small but very important port of Marstall in Denmark. Not for the feint hearted, it proved to be a very hard life at sea for the young men who really had no other choice. Perhaps one of the best novels coming out of Denmark in the last 25 years.
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on 22 October 2017
Very interesting book. The writing is very rare and unique. The narrative is absolutely extraordinary. However, I do feel that the book was just too long. Overall 4/5.
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on 17 March 2017
The book excercise pointlessness and flow of any saga, thrusting us between worlds and people and inviting us not for a story but for a journey.
If Marquez was Danish that would be "houndred years of solitude'.
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on 16 August 2011
Translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder

"War was like sailing. You could learn about clouds, wind direction, and currents, but the sea remained forever unpredictable. All you could do was adapt to it and try to return home alive."

Carsten Jensen was already noted as a journalist long before We, The Drowned, was published. Perhaps it's his observation skills from that career that make this fictional maritime novel so enthralling. Yes, that's a gushy word, and this review will contain many of them. See, I had heard about the novel quite a bit, and had a few people recommend it. And last year I was so adoring of anything Nordic or Scandinavian (still am, actually!). But there was so much hype about this that I figured it may be too 'important' to be enjoyable. I had it sitting a few weeks, looking like a great white whale among my other review copies....intimidating me. Then I dove in. And everything else pretty much got pushed aside in favor of reading this novel.

The scope is epic---generations of families living in the Danish port city of Marstal live and die, mostly via the sea. Going to sea is a right-of-passage for most every boy, and those who never return seem to outnumber those that do. Yet, it's not overly sentimental--the stories are told in a more distant, reporting style, rather than as an emotional narrative. Sections of the book are laid out almost as short novellas that interlink. The most intriguing feature of the arc of the novel is the family ties. We begin by meeting Laurids Madsen, an unflinching and unbending character who appears to be the model of wisdom and good. The story moves through him to his son, Albert, and beyond. Yet some vignettes feature new characters interlacing with old, and it seems like instead of a family tree, Jensen has created a city tree, donating a bit of space to each character.

"As we stood there, gazing out at the water, it seemed a great mystery lay before us: the mystery of our own lives, spread before our eyes. No matter how often we came here, it was a sight that always rendered us speechless."

Despite the many characters in play, however, none of them are similar. They all feel distinctly individual, with traits that are too unexpected to be imagined. I wondered if Jensen had collected a gallery of individuals from his reporting days, little mannerisms and odd habits that he saved to put together in this tale. Because it feels so real...no one behaves perfectly and things never go to plan, yet it feels right. He recreates the speech of children, their inner thoughts, and moves on to the worries and equivocations of an older man. Here he shows the child's reaction to fear: "They were probably scared of him and so they did what boys do around any object of fear: they went up close, pointed a finger, gave it a nickname, and masked their terror with roaring laughter."

In a section about a vicious schoolteacher, it concludes,

"Limping and bleeding, our skin black-and-blue with livid bruises, we were always aching in some exposed place. But that wasn't the worst of what Isager did to us.

He left his mark in another far more frightening way.

We became like him.

We committed appalling acts and only realized the horror of what we'd done when we stood gathered around the evidence of our atrocity. Violence was like a drug we couldn't relinquish."

As Jensen tells it, it's clear that he's devoted to the tenacity of the Danish people. Many times, but not always, he employs the David vs. Goliath archetype, with the small town victorious over much more feared and powerful nations. In this way, he introduces a political and historical thread to the stories about the townsfolk, without becoming dull or stalling out over the explanations of war and battle. In fact, as a journalist Jensen mentioned this in detail in an article from the BBC World Service, in regard to why Denmark hasn't joined in accepting the Euro but retains the krone for its monetary unit:

"To understand the reason for this obstinacy in a people that historically has mostly been known for its lack of passion and its willingness to adapt, you must understand then in Denmark nationalism takes the shape of moralism.

In a world where almost all nations are bigger than Denmark with its number of inhabitants that is only half of that of London how do you compete? How do you become visible on the world map?

By claiming you belong to another world, that of moral superiority. Big is bad and small is good, you claim. You celebrate David as the symbol of your small nation and take on the rest of the world as if it was a kind of Goliath. It is not your contribution to the world that singles you out, it is your resistance to the world, the stones you throw at it" (1).

Back to the novel, we are shown that drowning is at the back of everyone's mind, whether in peacetime or war: "Every sailor knows this bitter feeling: the coast is near, but you'll never reach it. Is there anything more heartbreaking than drowning in sight of land? Is there a single one of us who hasn't at least once felt haunted by the fear of slipping away within sight of a safe haven?...Every terror needs a yardstick, and surely the yardstick for the unknown is the known?"

Marstal, Denmark

As the people recover from their familial losses, they gain in other ways. Marstal changes, and even the personality of the town is altered by the sea. The losses from war aren't always physical, as Jensen shows clearly by even considering the economic conditions of the town.

I think I had two favorite aspects of the story, as well as a special fondness for Laurids and his son Albert. The family line that is conveyed, with the lineage that is similar enough to feel related even if they hardly know each other, owes its success to the writer's skill of somehow incorporating DNA into the text. Without telling the reader outright, one can sense the hereditary gifts (and faults) from father to son.

The other draw of the story is the writing itself--fast-paced, lean, yet incredibly descriptive and atmospheric. In some points you pause to reread a well-worded passage. For example, one sentence knocked me out..."their blue faces made them look like mermen born of the boiling foam." It felt poetic, and stuck in my head, until the point I thought the line was almost too perfect and alliterative. Yet gorgeous metaphors like that appear throughout, without being too precious. The locations too, from Australia to Samoa, Hawaii to the Caribbean and back to Marstal, feature realistic portrayals of ship life and the arduous journeys.

In an interview in World Literature Today, Jensen stated one purpose to the book for the city of Marstal today. "...for the widows of Marstal whose husbands were lost at sea, there was never an ending. No burial, no ritual of saying goodbye--like a sentence without a period. I felt like I was finally providing an ending to their story, bringing the dead back home and burying them. I was constructing a symbolic or metaphorical cemetary" (2).

For those ready to read this, it may be helpful to take note of a few of the names early on...the men who are captured by Germany and the boys in school in Marstal. They reappear. And don't let the large size of the book overwhelm you; the brisk storyline builds to a roaring adventure quickly and keeps it up.

One last note should address the beauty of the book itself, from the font and page numbers to the subtle graphics and monochrome color scheme. Everything about it feels classy, and this is one book I'm not lending out.
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