Paperbacks of the year: We, the Drowned, By Carsten Jensen (trs Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder)

What do you do with A Danish sailor?

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The Independent Culture

"Many years ago there lived a man called Laurids Madsen, who went up to heaven and came down again thanks to his boots."

This crisp sentence makes for a fitting opening to Carsten Jensen's We, the Drowned. Drawing on Denmark's proud maritime history, this magnificent novel follows Laurids and generations of other sailors as they are seduced by the romance of the sea – before being brought down to earth with a bump.

The book spans a century, from 1848 to the Second World War, and evokes just how exhilarating it must have been to work in the golden age of sail, "with the trade winds behind and the hot sun above". But Jensen never loses sight of the brutal realities. There are visceral descriptions of corporal punishment and naval warfare, replete with grisly details (cannonballs plastered with "bone splinters, blood and hair"). Joseph Conrad said that nowhere is the "disenchantment more swift" than on board a ship, and Jensen knows better than most the truth of that remark.

The pronoun of the title refers to an inclusive narrative voice – like the Chorus of Greek tragedy – that also encompasses the women left at home. The most vividly realised character here is Klara Friis, a widow who wants to end her town's sailing industry, tired of seeing men return to port empty handed. Happily, Jensen has been more successful. He has retrieved from the sea a treasure trove of stories, and it is a rich bounty indeed.