We, the Drowned, by Carsten Jensen

natalieokwisa's review against another edition

Go to review page

adventurous challenging dark emotional funny hopeful informative inspiring reflective sad tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


What a book. What a beautiful gift to the town of marstal. There was not a point where I was bored or tired of the book. I loved every second of this book. To read it is to experience the highs and low of a town and it’s individuals. It is to become the wives, children and sailors of marstal. It is to agree with their choices and express anger at their love. It is to accept that the sea will be their home, even if it means it will become their resting place. It is to recognise the heroes and the complex villains who both are ruled by their love or hate of the sea. It is to recognise that a town is truly shaped by its people and by its trade. For marstal it is the sea and we, the drowned was a beautiful insight into the importance of sea faring towns. It’s an insight into the dark beauty of the sea that has claimed so many lives but is also the source of liberation. It is to understand that death is not the end but a continuation. Absolutely loved this book!! Words cannot describe it!!

rik07's review against another edition

Go to review page


An amazing tour de force through the history of seafaring with the Danish sailortown of Marstal at its centre. As I come from a city of the Baltic myself, the book's first half thrilled me intensely as I've learned a great deal about the early age of seafaring. Yet, the main theme may be the sea and how it determines the fates of those dependent on it: the sailors. Moreover, how the family of each sailor, in particular the wives and sons, are affected by a sailor's fate is a reoccuring theme in this one. Despite the book's focus on characters, do not expect a full fledged character development. The book skips again and again important details in the character's development and acknowledges many things with nothing more than a side remark. Yet, the focus of the book is never in doubt and as we ride on the waves through the centuries, the novel delivers a series of adventures, myths, fascinating characters, and never ignores the tragic, wretched and desperate side of life at and on sea.

hassettreads's review against another edition

Go to review page

adventurous emotional reflective slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? No
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


Expand filter menu Content Warnings

swamphag's review against another edition

Go to review page


I had picked this book up because of the artwork of the boat on the cover hoping that it was going to actually be about the sea. I was not disappointed.

This book looks daunting because of its grandiose size, but Jensen's pacing is phenomenal. When I got to the end of the book I wished that I hadn't gotten through it so quickly.

There are so many characters and stories that it would have been easy for Jensen to fall into tangents or for basically anything to get lost in the chaos. However, Jensen masterfully weaves the story around each and every person he mentions that it adds incredible depth and a kind of haunting beauty to the book.

Even though you are reading through it for the first time this book immediately feels like an old favorite; something you've read, reread, idly leafed through, and obsessed over a million times.

bobbytrucktricks's review against another edition

Go to review page


Very long and totally worth it with a very moving ending.

dckollros's review against another edition

Go to review page


"We" are the seafaring people living in the town of Marstal in Denmark. Marstal is a town where the men are raised to go to sea to become absent husbands, fathers, and sons with no guarantee of returning home. The women are left behind to raise the children and keep the homestead running. We read about three generations of characters from 1848 to 1945 following the mariner's life, the dangers of the sea, the evolution of the shipping industry, and a world war.

This is a character-driven story and there is too much packed into this book to describe in a review. It is a chunky book, but it does not feel like a long read because the writing style is superb and it flows beautifully. The book is broken into sections as the generations pass, but all of the characters appear or are referred to throughout the whole book. This story was so engaging, interesting, sometimes gruesome, and always vivid. I recommend it to all sea lovers.

bbx's review against another edition

Go to review page


Probably one of the best books I’ve read in years.

lastblues13's review against another edition

Go to review page


it's always ourselves we find in the sea

No, that quote isn't from We, the Drowned. It's from ee cummings, but it fits anyway. This time of the year, my thoughts turn towards the sea. I'm from New England, a place with deep connections to the sea, and especially the whaling industry. And every summer, my family goes to New Jersey, where my mother's side is from. My longing for the ocean has been my main reason for picking up We, the Drowned, despite a page count numbering in the high 600s.

Marstal, Denmark, has more in common with the New England towns I've visited in my childhood than the New Jersey of my summers. New Jersey's beachside is more Edwardian, with its boardwalks and vendors hawking salt water taffy and brightly colored stately Victorians. New England seaside towns are more subdued, old fishing towns with whitewashed houses and small centers. Even the name Marstal makes me think of Mystic or Gloucester or even Newport. The point is, I was ready to love this book before I even picked it up.

The cover and the title and everything are just beautiful, by the way. On the surface, this book is about the residents of a small seaside town from the later half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th. Looking closer, it is about love and family and loss and heartache. Strip away all that, and you will find nothing more than a love letter to the sea, from a man who understands that its call is hard to escape, even if it the hardships it brings are innumerable.

The writing was easy, pleasant, oscillating between the rare first person plural and regular third person. I loved the use of first person plural. I've seen some uses where it's clunky or unsuccessful, but in this case it fit perfectly. It makes sense with the title (which I love so much it's my second favorite title of all time, right after The Tsar of Love and Techno). The narrators are the drowned. I could only imagine how fantastic this book is in its native language, since I presume some beauty must have been lost in translation, as is the case for all translated books. This book was entertaining. When I first opened it, I was apprehensive- am I really going to like this probably super-slow 675 page book? With small font to boot? While it wasn't the fastest book I've ever read, the pace was really nice and it was written in such an entertaining way. I only took four days to get through this book, as opposed to the two weeks it might have taken me to read books of similar length, even if I am a speed reader. It was pretty funny, too, in a subtle kind of way.

There was a definite tone shift between the first two and the second two parts though. I think I preferred the first two parts, with all the fun seafaring action and adventure. When I read those parts, I felt like I was at sea, and I adored it. However, once Albert went back to shore and Klara was introduced, the book started to get slow and drag along. It pulled me out of the nice seaside vibe I got from the book, and I didn't much like Klara. I know she was supposed to give us a woman's perspective on the sea as opposed to a man's- the man sees the sea as an adventure, the woman sees it as a graveyard- but I still didn't like how, once she got money, she set out to destroy the town's economy. She had the best intentions, but still. I couldn't imagine what Albert would think about his money being used to tear the town apart like that.

But then we return to the sea with Klara's son Knud Erik and I loved it all over again. I loved how Knud Erik became a sailor and how his mother didn't want him to but he became one anyway because he couldn't resist the ocean and yes, the life was miserable and gruesome, but that didn't send him home. He kept at it because he couldn't resist what the sea had to offer him. Some of the most poignant parts of this book were told in letters his mother wrote him, my favorite being the second one, which almost brought tears to my eyes.

The ending is absolute perfection. Oh my God, this book was so worth the read. If you don't care so much about a discernible plot but are just as in love with the sea as I am, this book is so highly recommended. I feel like I didn't do it justice with this review, and for that I apologize to Carsten Jensen. I wonder how much is true and how much isn't?

carolined314's review against another edition

Go to review page


I was utterly seduced by this Scandinavian tale. There's a delicious folktale aspect about this, but it's also anchored in modern sensibilities. There are enough details that you feel you are hanging out directly with the characters, feeling their shivers, tasting their ginger biscuits, smelling the salty air. As the story grows and pinwheels, you realize you're following the tale of the whole town, rather than any individual. And from that departure point, there's a whole range of stories that veer into the fantastical, the practical, the shrunken heads, the boys with skulls...

I highly recommend this book, to anyone. Don't let the mournful title put you off; it's remarkably full of life.

ampersunder's review against another edition

Go to review page


The cover is beautiful and the typography is perfect and somehow together they made me think
that this novel was a seafaring version of Warlock or a more readable Moby-Dick or maybe (more fancifully) along the lines of Joshua Allen's Chokeville, but sadly it is not. This was enjoyable to read and worth it if you are ready to spend just under 700 pages with a few generations of people from Marstal, Denmark in the form of their stories told in a range of depths and interestingness in an easy-going narrative style, without that extra punch that would make this a literary door-stop. It was the kind of book that you can read so fast that you skip over words and not miss anything. It‰ЫЄs readable and imaginative and fun and violent and sad, but for the most part everything is laid bare -- there doesn‰ЫЄt seem to be much under the surface that the book leaves the reader to discover on their own. A lot of telling without showing.

It‰ЫЄs a bunch of men going to war and boys growing up and teenagers going to sea and a man searching for his father and lonely people becoming family and men going to war again and then again. One woman out of anger and bitterness trying to change a town‰ЫЄs future and then realizing that she was wrong. Lovers coming together after years apart. People dying violently and ships being destroyed.

The story is told in a mix of first-person plural, first-person singular, and third-person omniscient. The shifts were necessary but sometimes confusing, and they made the whole seem a little harder to swallow, especially where it wasn‰ЫЄt clear when that shift occurred. The first-person plural was very effective in portraying a sense of the oral tradition and imagined history, which is great, but I would have liked it more had it been first-person plural throughout, focusing on the collective understanding and impression of events. But then of course you couldn‰ЫЄt get into as much depth with personal relationships and you couldn‰ЫЄt effectively describe events that take place on a ship, and then you‰ЫЄd have a much shorter and tighter book -- you‰ЫЄd lose the sense of a sprawling epic history of a time and place.

On that note, however, although this book gives the impression of a sprawling epic, based on the length and the range of years it covers, it really isn‰ЫЄt. There isn‰ЫЄt much historical depth and I never really felt like I could see what Marstal was like in my mind, or understand how it would feel to walk down its streets. Having that more strongly conveyed would have been nice, but the novel went for range, I think, more than depth.

There comes a time in the life of a sailor when he no longer belongs ashore. It's then that he surrenders to the Pacific, where no land blocks the eye, where sky and ocean mirror each other until above and below have lost their meaning, and the Milky Way looks like the spume of a breaking wave and the globe itself rolls like a boat in the midst of the sinking and heaving surf of that starry sky, and the sun is nothing but a tiny glowing dot of phosphorescence on the night sea.

I was filled with an impatient longing for the unknown, and there was a ruthlessness to it .... Mystery emanated from the Pacific's vast surface. My papa tru must have felt it once. And when a man has felt it, he doesn't return.

I was reminded of a summer's evening on the beach back home. The wind had died down and the water was completely calm. In the dusk light, sea and sky had taken on a violet tinge and the horizon had melted clean away, leaving the beach as the only fixed point, its white sand marking the farthest edge of the world, beyond which lay endless violet space. When I took my first stroke, I felt as though I was swimming straight into the immensity of the universe above me.

That night on the Pacific I had the same feeling.

Isaksen had consulted the compass and plotted the course. He'd spoken eloquently about our ability to navigate through life even when it was at its hardest, but he'd overlooked one essential thing about the art of steering a ship. You don't just keep your eye on the compass; you also check the rigging, you read the clouds, you observe the direction of the wind and the color of the current and the sea, and you look out for the sudden surf that warns of a rock ahead. It may not be like that on board a steamer. But that's how it is on a sailing ship, and in this respect its journey parallels that of life: simply knowing where you want to go isn't enough, because life is a windblown voyage, consisting mainly of the detours imposed by alternating calm and storm.