A review by ampersunder
We, the Drowned, by Carsten Jensen


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.