Book review: We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen

Posted on Friday, January 28th, 2011

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The author and political commentator Carsten Jensen hails from the Danish town of Marstal, in the South of Funen Archipelago, and it’s the people of this coastal town, and their relationship to the sea, that forms the central thread of the novel.

“Such was the chain of life: unbreakable.”

This seafaring book deserves praise for its ambition alone: split into five parts, it begins in 1849 and concludes a century and four generations later, with the end of WWII. The story starts well. The first two hundred pages colourfully describe a naval battle between Denmark and Germany at Eckernförde, followed by a POW drama, life in Marstal under the cloud of a tyrannical school teacher, and Pacific adventures full of pirates, cannibals, and a shrunken head or two.

The book’s main strength, however, is centred around parts two and three, which feature the character of Albert Madsen. Recently returned to Marstal and now a wealthy and respected shipowner, Albert becomes a surrogate father to Knud Erik, one of the many children whose real father drowned while sailing. The volatile relationship between Albert and the boy’s mother is unsentimental and at times very moving. In addition to the brilliantly complex Albert, we’re given an intimate portrayal of a widower learning to stand on her own two feet, of the legacy of a father lost to the sea, and of a son yearning to follow in his footsteps despite the risks – all of which are the novel’s major themes.

If the book’s greatest moments occur when we ‘zoom in’ on the interplay of characters, then its weakest occur when the camera pulls back and we have to read large chunks of impersonal summary that span many years. And during such moments – for example, when Albert voyages the Pacific or returns to Marstal at the outbreak of WWI – the pace and emotional charge suffer from too much self-reflection and navel gazing (or should that be naval gazing?). Another weak spot for me was the anonymous ‘we’ narrator that was applied inconsistently throughout the chapters. ‘We’ may well be a clever literary device, but its effect was lost on this reader. I simply found myself asking, who is this narrator and when will he or she be revealed!

But weak spots aside, I turned the last page with a richer, more intimate insight of sealife and the legacy it leaves behind.

This historical saga is reviewed by our guest blogger Charles Daly. Thanks for this great review, Charles!

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Our rating: ★★★★½

  • Author: Carsten Jensen
  • Hardcover: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (February 9, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151013772
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151013777

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Tagged as Action, carsten jensen, denmark, drama, Fiction, history, saga, sea, world war+ Categorized as By year, 2011, By rating, 4 Stars, By genre, By rating, By genre, Historical

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