Book Review: We, the Drowned

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.

The English Evergreens

One of the things I’ve had to grapple with when it came to deciding to make a blog was to do with my actual work. It seems silly that I would have a website that would have no writing on at all. It would be like a painter or photographer running their own blog and not using a single image. Yet, what could I share here?

You see, the very best things I write I’d like to try and publish. The less good stories, the failed attempts, I don’t want to share at all. Which doesn’t leave me with much left over! Still, I think a writer’s blog should have actual writing and so I shall be posting things over on my ‘Free Writing’ page. What type of things? Work which I like but no one seems to want to publish. Works which I think are good but even I know are unpublishable. And stories and poems which I like but simply don’t want to publish at all, but rather just share.

This first story is of the latter category. It was written on Tuesday, 12th January 2016. Only today have I come back to edited the rawness I wrote. Some people will figure out what it’s about instantly, and I hope you enjoy it. Some of you might have no idea, and hopefully it is still enjoyable, rather than incoherent. There will be a comment sections for every story and poem I post, so please, let me know what you think.

Please click through to read The English Evergreens. 

Starting Somewhere

I’m going to start off this first blog post by quoting a good writing friend of mine, Adam Getty:

I don’t want to do this.  Blogging that is.  What I want is to write stories.  I want for people to read my stories. I want for people to enjoy my stories and tell their friends about my stories.  I want, maybe, to pay some bills with my stories.  But first, I must share my stories.

I don’t want to blog… It feels pretentious to place my thoughts online as though they are significant.  It seems narcissistic to assume any is interested in what I have to say about anything.  It feels painfully self-indulgent to put on paper thoughts which reside quite comfortably in my head.  What’s perhaps most ironic about this, though, is that I still apparently view the internet as a place where pretension, narcissism, and self-indulgence are inappropriate.

This captures, more than anything, how I feel. Blogs and websites are the abode of established writers. They are places where thousands of people pass through to check what their favourite authors are doing. It is a place where I want to go, but not a place I am currently at.

An aspiring writer’s blog lives a sad existence. Half of its views come from the author. Another 40% from friends and family. 9% may come from bots, readying to try and sell you kitchen counters from Manchester. 1% of the blog’s views may be from genuine strangers who are curious about this new writer.

And yet, here I am. With a blog. An aspiring writer’s blog. If I think they are such sad and desolate places, what am I doing making one? Let me count the ways…

  • Occasionally, I am published by very nice people editing magazines. They ask me for a website they can link to and I reply back, telling them I don’t have one. I can hear them frowning through my emails. Chiefly, this little site is here to direct anyone who may like one of my stories so much that they want to see what else I write.
  • Adam is right when he expands in his full blog post, that a blog is necessary to stand out in a world of would be writers. In today’s world, writers are not just expected to write. They are meant to be great marketers as well. I suppose this is a first step in trying to build some type of audience.
  • In the near future, I may be looking at self-publishing a novelette series. From everything I read, if you don’t have some sort of online presence, you will be chewed up and spat out from the self-publishing arena.
  • It might be fun? … Maybe.

I don’t know exactly what I might post here. A lot of it will be writing-related, or at least, so I hope. Actual stories and poems will be shared. But perhaps I will also book recommendations and reviews. Maybe I will ramble on some topic. Explain the value of a cover drive in a game of cricket?

Essentially, give me a chance to be inconsistent until I stumble upon something that works.

Thanks!