We, The Drowned

I was fascinated by the trend at the library of foreign authors after the extremely popular Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series came out last year.  It’s still bouncing around the New York Times best seller list even now.  We saw a huge surge in demand at the library for what’s popular in Europe at the moment, which is how I ended up reading We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen.  Jensen is a Danish author, and although I’ve visited Denmark before, I don’t have a very good handle on the flavor of the people or the country.

I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read a lot of foreign authors.  The ones I have ventured out to are usually Latin writers from South America.  The translations of their books always have a very lyrical quality to them, in particular I’m thinking of works by Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  They have touches of the magical in them and the words on the page create such beautiful, descriptive pictures that make even the impossible seem real.

I hate to generalize, but Danish writing seems to be the exact opposite.  Jensen does have a magical quality to his writing, but it’s blunt and cold and just hangs in the air after you’re read it.  It pairs well with the plot since We, the Drowned is a novel about the sea and sailing life.  Right before this book I read Fall of Giants by Ken Follett, and he’s notorious for long sagas that follow generations of families over long periods of time.  Jensen used a similar format, which is what initially attracted me to the book.

I’ve found that readers are often grouped into categories.  You’ve got the romance readers, the sci fi guys, and political fiction enthusiasts.  Some of the quirkiest readers are the ones who like nature/man-against-the-elements kind of books.  Sea readers are close to being in that category.  They are die hard Moby Dick or Old Man and Sea fans when the rest of us fall asleep or give up trudging through the endless pages.  We, the Drowned will work for you if you’re one those.

That warning aside, We, the Drowned did capture my attention even though I don’t fall into those categories.  The second half is much more enthralling and is worth waiting for.  It follows a coastal town in Denmark from the 1840s through World War II.  I was so into the characters and the imagry that Jensen created that in a way the plot felt timeless.  I didn’t have a great sense that sailing during the 1860s was very different from the 1930s.  The World Wars were obvious events, but the essence of being a sailor and the drive to conquor the ocean overrode any technical advances that occurred during the century.  At the time, it bothered me a little, but looking back on the novel I see how it didn’t matter as much.  The bigger point was the constant pull of the ocean on the sailors and their families.  The women’s struggle to let go of their husbands and sons and manage the home for long periods of time was all too familiar as a military spouse.  It was comforting but sad, and I don’t feel like it truely got resolved at the end. 

Jensen certainly wrote an epic novel.  I felt tossed and windblown alongside the characters, and it was refeshing to hear a different voice.  The European influence in the novel is striking, but so is the landscape and the ability of the people in the book to endure.  It would not have been nearly as enjoyable, consuming, or authentic had anyone else written it.

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