Then the cloud was upon us, and fleetingly we felt as though we were being showered with the withered leaves of an autumn forest. Then I realised that it wasn’t dead foliage, but living creatures whirling around us, fluttering silky yellow wings. We were at the centre of a vast swarm of butterflies.
There had to be millions of them. A storm, raging far away from the tyrannical calm in which we found ourselves, must have swept them off an island and out to sea. They must have been seeking land – and thought they’d found it on our doomed ship. They settled everywhere, on the rigging and on every single one of its countless ropes, covering the slack sails and transforming them into bright tapestries of yellow. Within minutes this living breathing mass of exhausted insects had changed the Flying Scud beyond recognition.
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
Last year, I set myself a target of reading fifty books in a year. I’d never done it before, I may not ever do it again. But I succeeded. And in those fifty books, I found some amazing finds. I read Tigerman by my favourite author, Nick Harkaway. No doubt I will wax lyrically about his books at another time. I became a China Mieville junkie and I’m sure I’ll write something about Embassytown and Railsea.
They’ll be future reviews from my literary adventure last year: Kazuo Ishiguro’s tragically underrated The Buried Giant, the amazing The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, the achingly beautiful Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and a host of other books.
But I wanted my first review to be a book that many people may not have heard of. A book that was truly awesome in both senses of the word. Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned (translated into English by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder).
Jensen’s novel is a tome. A nearly 700 page Danish seafaring epic. It straddles generations, historical events, and genres. The book begins in 1848 and the Danes rushing to fight the Germans and it ends during World War II. In that time, we’re taken to places across the globe, from Canada to Australia, to Russia to Samoa. Within the centre of it all, though, is the Danish town of Marstal. We witness its history, its people and the slow arrival of modernity.
One of the things I love about the book is its changeability. At any moment, through its three generations of protagonists, the book might be a war novel, an adventure story, an almost boarding school novel, or even a sad romance. There’s a sense of folklore riddled through it all and throughout, there’s just a hint of magical realism. It leads to moments of sheer beauty or striking imagery.
We, the Drowned is a book about people and the good and bad that they can do. We see a man broken by war abandon his children. A son going to incredible lengths to find him. A couple thrown together out of need rather than want. A woman’s desire to fix things and the consequences of her decision. Through it all, we’re kept close to the story because the narrator is the “we” from the title. It’s an interesting choice, an unnamed, never specified man who witnessed first hand most of the story. It kept things feeling so personal in the face of such outstanding scope.
Amusingly, perhaps the most out of place segment is my favourite part of the whole book. Albert Marsden goes in search of his missing father, finding himself in Hobart and then onto the Pacific Islands. It’s an old style adventure story in a book which, for its most part, is not. But I adore it. It is truly special and for that part alone I’d recommend the book to anyone.
However, the rest of the book is still an incredible read, filled with beautiful writing, distinct characters and entertaining stories. You won’t be disappointed.