This is the extraordinary story of an ordinary town and the people that live therein. Marstal is a town of sailors and their families on a small island in Denmark. In truth, the residents are mainly sailors’ wives and children, as the men are home infrequently, often gone for years at a time. The women live like widows, and have grown strong because of it. The young boys’ fates are inevitable – they, too, will sail away from home just after their confirmation at the age of fourteen. The town’s cemetery fills slowly, since most of the men that die are never found.
In this story that is both tragic, inspiring, and darkly humorous, we find a young man searching for his father in order to confront him for leaving his family; an old man who discovers he still has much to learn about the world, even after years at sea, and that he’s still capable of love; a widow who would rather destroy the town than see any more young men leave. It’s the story of a small island town that prospers from war when it’s far from their shores, but the men who sail into the war are destroyed when the war forces its way into their lives with all of its ugliness and destruction. It’s a story about men at sea who learn that there’s no rhyme or reason to the workings of the world. In a storm, good men are taken while bad men are left unscathed. Whether they pray seems to make no difference in the end.
This was my first experience with Danish literature, and I am thoroughly satisfied with it. Jensen has amazing insight into human nature. Although the protagonist is not consistent throughout the book, the transition between protagonists is seamless and so the narrative never feels interrupted. The story dug itself into me so deep that at one point, I got so angry at a character that I had to put the book down for awhile to cool off. The incident I refer to, and my reaction, only made the experience of the book better. It’s not just a book about the sea – it’s about confronting inner fears and desires and atoning for the mistakes of the past.
The book is written in the first person plural, as in the title. It was really an interesting style of narration, and in an author Q&A, Jensen said the following about his choice to use this style, and it reveals some insight into the book itself:
The “we” telling the story represents the collective memory of the town, but not everybody is included. It is the memory of the men, since the lives of men and women are so dramatically different in a seafaring community. The women have their own separate story slowing unfolding in the novel alongside that of the men.
The “we” is a kind of Greek chorus forever present on the stage, always commenting and introducing, but as a storyteller the “we” is also involved in the story, partial and taking sides, which means that it is not always reliable.
The “we” seems all-knowing, but how can it know the most intimate things that go on between people? Well, maybe it doesn’t know. What you don’t know in a small community you invent and that is also called gossip. Gossip is an essential part of people’s lives, and this is what I want my novel to mirror. It is full of real history, fiction, and gossip, too, because that is how the world works.
We, the Drowned is an amazing piece of literature. It’s worth buying. Besides, you can get a used hardcover copy on Amazon for $3.98. Go get it!