We, The Drowned begins in 1848 when a crew of Danish sailors sets sail from the town of Marstal to fight the Germans (as a part of the First Schleswig War). Among them is Laurids Madsen, who after falling to earth with a bump (literally) promptly escapes his hometown into the anonymity of the high seas. As soon as he is old enough, his son Albert sets off in search of his missing father. Plagued by premonitions of bloodshed, he returns to a town increasingly run by women – among them a widow intent on liberating all men from the tyranny of the sea. We, The Drowned spans four generations, two world wars and a hundred years, tracing the fate of Marstal and her inhabitants.
I don’t often like seafaring books. To me they bring back memories of a near empty library with a few battered Alexander Kent and Patrick O’Brian books and scary old ladies. They always featured a novice taking to the sea – mainly in order to explain the various types of rigging, ship and cannon on board, all in excruciating detail, all at the expense of a story, and usually for people that already know all that stuff anyway.
It was to my surprise then that I fell in love with We, The Drowned. From the beautiful cover art to the map inside, it draws you in before you even start reading. And when you do you’re in for a treat. Wise, humourous and breathtaking in scope, you don’t just enjoy one rollicking adventure, you live through hundreds. You’re there with the schoolboys playing pranks on their teachers across the generations, you’re sailing through the tropics during the golden age of trade sail and you’re thrust into the brutal convoy warfare of World War Two. You even sit by the hearth with the women left behind, waiting for bad news as they struggle with raising their children – playing father more than mother on many occasions. All of this works so well due to the clever inclusive narrative style Jensen uses. Probably my favourite trick since The Book Thief.
Jensen’s writing (and huge credit has to go to the translators) is superb. It touches upon nearly all of your emotions as you move through this epic tale. There are so many stories within the story that weeks later I still find myself recalling many of the characters and their tales that I’d thought I’d forgotten. Although some parts of the book may have you looking into how you might go about joining the Merchant Navy, Jensen does not shy away from showing you the brutality and harshness of a life at sea.
Yes it is long, and some people have said it sags somewhat in the middle (when we spend most time in Marstal rather than away at sea), but I’m afraid I don’t agree. The story, fundamentally, is about Marstal and its relationship with the sea. Even when her people are leagues away, Marstal is always close to their hearts, as much as they try to pretend otherwise.