I purchased We, The Drowned for my dad a couple of years ago in the hope that when he’d finished, I could read it too. He hadn’t picked it up by the time my TBR was almost entirely diminished, so I decided to use my initiative and sneak it from his bookshelf whilst he wasn’t looking. (Kidding. I did ask. I’m no Book Thief.)
Carsten Jensen’s novel has been voted the best Danish novel of the last 25 years, and has been translated by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder. Almost every review I have seen to date has been incredibly complimentary, and has been followed by at least four – but more often five – stars. Joseph O’Connor’s quote on the back cover struck me immediately: ‘This is a book to sail into, to explore, to get lost in, but it is also a book that brings the reader, dazzled by wonders, home to the heart from which great stories come. Meet Carsten Jensen halfway and you’re spellbound’. It is rare, I think, to see a jacket review which is so highly filled with praise as this one is, and which does not rely on cliches to hook the browser. The novel’s blurb describes it as ‘an epic tale of adventure, ruthlessness and passion’. Various publications have called it ‘rollocking… rich, powerful and rewarding’, ‘innovative and unique’, and ‘a great hamper of a novel’. I believed in consequence that I was going to be reading a novel which I would absolutely adore.
We, The Drowned begins in 1848, when a ‘motley crew of Danish sailors sets sail from the small town of Marstal’ in Denmark to fight a war against Germany, ‘who wanted to cut their ties with Denmark’. Amongst these men is our first protagonist, Laurids Madsen. He is an experienced seafarer, having sailed all seven seas by the time we meet him. In the initial paragraph, we learn that he has been thrown up into the air when the ship on which he was sailing blew up. In his own words, he travelled up to heaven and showed his ‘bare arse’ to Saint Peter; to the surprise of those on the ground beneath him, he ‘landed right back on his feet’.
The scope of Jensen’s novel is enormous. He encompasses a one hundred year period, and includes four generations of a family. The narrative perspective used treats the reader too as an onlooker, with its use of ‘we’, no matter which characters are being followed. The first person narrative voice used in this way is undoubtedly effective in the telling of such an expansive tale, but it also serves to make the entirety feel quite disjointed, particularly from an emotional standpoint. The reader has to view every occurrence through the same filter as the all-encompassing narrator, and there is thus little scope for adding one’s own opinion into the book whilst one is reading. We see things exactly as they are set out; consequently, we have a prescribed, and quite restricted view.
The sense of static place in We, The Drowned is strong, and is often evoked dramatically. Of the changing of the seasons for instance, Jensen writes: ‘Winter arrived, and with it the frost. The boats were laid up in the harbour, the harbour froze over and an ice pack formed on the beach. Island and sea became one; we inhabited a white continent whose infinity both beckoned and terrified us. We could walk as far as Ristinge Klint on the island of Langeland if we wanted to, marching across frozen ships’ channels between sandbanks that lay like white hills, collecting snowdrifts fringed by ice packs. It looked so wild, windswept and deserted’. For me, Jensen’s descriptions were the real strength of the novel.
We, The Drowned is undoubtedly well written, but I did find it a little slow at times. A lot of the details felt drawn out, and there were some sections which did not really hold my interest. Jensen’s novel is undoubtedly ambitious, but for me, it did not live up to expectations, and verged on the disappointing.