Book review: 'We, the Drowned' by Carsten Jensen

Special to the Los Angeles Times

We, the Drowned

A Novel

Carsten Jensen, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 675 pp., $28

Seafaring literature often trades on a sense of freedom and daring deeds. After all, the ocean has long been a symbol of the possibility for adventure and a better life, even if it has also been the source of great tragedy. In Danish author Carsten Jensen's epic novel "We, the Drowned," these themes are accompanied by a strong sense of the peculiarities of human nature. This first novel by a noted journalist chronicles the lives of the fisherfolk of Marstal, Denmark, from the late 1800s through World War II. Based on historical fact, "We, the Drowned" skillfully recounts large- and small-scale events, including a harrowing voyage in the South Pacific under a mad captain and a detailed account of the cruelties of an abusive teacher whose actions will mold the next generation of sailors.

Some of the best scenes include realistic reportage of horrific naval battles, with no skimping on the details: "Ejnar saw a man's eye explode into a red mess and another man's skull torn off." However, the author is also able to delicately record the painful stop-start courtship between an old sailor and a young widow, writing, "They made love like two people who are tied to others and can only meet illicitly, briefly, and breathlessly. And that was indeed their situation: he was married to his old age, and she to her youth. The bridge where they were supposed to meet cracked the moment they stepped on it."

The sometimes abrupt switch between genres of fiction might have given readers the bends if it weren't for Carsten's clever approach to point of view. He anchors his narrative in an impersonal "we" that swoops down and eavesdrops on every aspect of town life. At times, the "we" mires scenes in a sameness of tone, but mainly it proves a powerful unifying device.

Despite the many tangential stories and characters, what also provides unity is Carsten's focus on the larger-than-life sailor Laurids Marsden and his heirs, who stand at the core of "We, the Drowned." Laurids' casual bravery and flare as a sailor, along with the enduring strength of his son Albert, will hold a sustained fascination for readers.

Near the end of the novel, amid the destruction of war, Carsten writes, "The dead had been piling up throughout our entire lives: the drowned and the missing, all of those who'd remained unburied across the centuries…and we danced with the drowned. And they were us." Many novels would sink under the weight of that passage, but "We, the Drowned" is wide and deep enough to bear it comfortably.

VanderMeer's latest nonfiction includes "Monstrous Creatures" and "The Steampunk Bible," which is forthcoming next month.

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