Paperbacks of the year: We, the Drowned, By Carsten Jensen (trs Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder)
What do you do with A Danish sailor?
Sunday 04 December 2011
"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.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Exclusive: Abusers using spyware apps to monitor partners reaches 'epidemic proportions'
- 2 Margaret Thatcher 'expressed fears of Asian rising' at Anglo-Irish summit in 1984
- 3 Sussex couple die in suspected Christmas Day 'suicide pact'
- 4 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 5 The Unluckiest People of the Year 2014 (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
Vagina canoe artist defends herself over ‘obscenity’ charges
Doctor Who Christmas special, review: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
The Interview film review: Controversial gross-out satire is broad, bawdy and bad - but undeniably entertaining
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'