Because I like to read books blind, I didn’t remember what Carsten Jensen’s We, The Drowned was about by the time I picked it up to read. Because it starts with a story about a dude getting blown up, flashing his bare ass at St. Peter, and then coming back down to earth unscathed thanks to his magical sea boots, I thought it was some sort of fantasy-ish type thing with a nautical theme. Because I am stupid, and I know nothing of the wider world, I thought it took place in a fictional land. Ærø, that’s got to be a made-up place, right? With a made-up language? Like Elven in Middle Earth? Christ, I’m dumb.
In fact, We, The Drowned is a fictionalized history of Jensen’s hometown of Marstal in Denmark. In some ways, it’s a maritime history – the story of sailors down through the generations, how their lives change and stay the same as shipping technology develops and economies evolve. In some ways, it’s a martial history – the story of how, in many ways, the most meaningful developments in a people’s culture happen as a result of war and its aftermath. In some ways, it’s a personal story of loves and losses – as any engaging novel must be. With Jensen’s chorus of narrators, we see the town, along with its heroes and villains, for what it has been, what it could be, what it must be. Simultaneously, we see with a thousand-yard view, and the intimate knowledge the heart.
With Jensen’s individual protagonists, we experience everything of life. We go sailing across the Pacific, fall in love, abandon families, put down roots, commit murder, endure cruelty, learn to be brave, remember the past, forget everything, fight, make peace, live, perish. We fight in wars and we do something else instead, we seek adventure and spend years in back-breaking toil, we go mad. We run away and we cannot escape. We lust, we hate, we find peace, we die with our boots on. We eat herring and we remember the doll we lost and we try to make up for the dog we tortured. We are not sorry we burned down the town. We both tolerate and torture the village idiot. We could use some new blood. And no matter what that mad widow does, we will go to sea.
Jensen is a gifted storyteller, and the story he chose is a fascinating one. I’m particularly impressed with how his narrative style subtly changes over the course of the book to become more modern as the story moves forward in time. It’s a gentle and gradual shift – indeed, I wonder if it was even purposeful at first – but is an exceedingly effective way to keep the credibility of the narrative and to keep the reader engaged over the course of a long book (693 pages). I loved this book. It is contemplative, descriptive, emotive, thrilling, sexy, even shocking a time or two. I finished it while spending a weekend on Minnesota’s North Shore, my first time up there. I thought a lot about Jensen’s sailors as I took in the infinite beauty of Lake Superior’s wildest, prettiest shoreline. The breathtaking lake made me feel a sort of connection with them that’s difficult to describe, but that I’m sure a Marstaller would innately understand.
Rating: Five Stars