We, The Drowned is an unusual novel by Danish writer Carsten Jensen that has become an international best seller. It relates the history of the author’s home town, the port of Marstal, Denmark, from 1848 to 1945. Although it picks principal characters to follow during these times, large portions of the novel are written in the first person plural, as though the entire town is the Greek chorus in a play. The novel follows the fate of the town as it rises to become a major shipping port to its near demise just before and during World War II.
The narrative style of the novel feels like a series of seafaring tales. Ships sink, sailors are never seen again, but the townsmen of Marstal continue to be lured out to sea. We follow them as the Danes go to war with Germany in the mid-19th century and the men of Marstal wonder why they are fighting men they traded with the week before. In this conflict, Laurids Madsen is shot upward from an exploding ship and lands again on his feet, unharmed, creating a legend about his boots.
Years later, his son Albert travels the South Pacific looking for his father, who went to sea when Albert was four and never returned. He finds him with a second family in Samoa.
As an old man retired from a prosperous career as a sea captain, Albert befriends a young boy, Knut Erik Friis, whose widowed young mother does everything she can to keep her son from going to sea. When she gains some economic power in the community, she undercuts the town’s shipping industry in an attempt to keep all the young men home.
These stories and many more, ending with Knut Erik’s experiences during World War II, tell the rich tales of the lives in this seafaring town. Although I was initially a little put off by the narrative style, I found myself barely able to put down this book.