Harvill Secker £17.99 (693pp) £16.19 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

We, the Drowned, By Carsten Jensen, Trans. Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder

"Now it was time to meet the sea... We said goodbye to our mothers. They'd been around all our lives, but we'd never properly seen them. They'd been bent over washing-tubs or cooking-pots, their faces red and swollen from heat and steam, holding everything together while our fathers were away at sea. It was their endurance and exhaustion we knew rather than them." Not that endurance and exhaustion don't also characterise the fathers' lives, which they join, at the earliest age possible. Years go by on board ship, bringing only thankless tedious labours and random exposure to very real dangers.

Even their efforts at diligence go unrewarded, while "we never had a single hour ashore to visit the towns where we loaded and unloaded. After a year or so at sea we'd been to Trondheim, Stavanger, Kalmar, Varberg, Königsberg, Wismar and Lübeck, Antwerp, Grimsby and Hull." But all the boys see of these is quaysides where further back-breaking tasks are allotted. They scarcely question their situation. "The wide world we'd come to know consisted of the ship's deck, the smoky cabin, and the permanently damp berths." From time to time young sailors choose not to sign on again on a particular ship, but never consider spending their lives differently. What their grandfathers did, what their fathers are doing, they will continue, no matter what great changes are occurring on land.

The "we" of this novel is not only present in the title, it is maintained until its very last pages, with the narrator's magnificent and moving rhetorical apostrophe to the lot of sailors from a part of the world that has always produced (and benefitted from) them. And who is this narrator? We never know, and we cannot. He is an inhabitant of the Danish community of Marstal, able to bear witness to both its social and its individual aspects, above all its sailors, during a whole century - from 1848, with the outbreak of Denmark's First Schleswig War against Prussia, to 1945 and the end of the Second World War, when once again German militarism had brought the port suffering, many deaths, but some cause also for satisfactions of the hard-tested conscience.

Except for the section told by its most arresting and influential character, Albert Madsen, we apprehend all the novel's diverse events through the prism of this generic Marstaller. Unlike his fellows, he knows what life away from a ship is like, is aware of the plights of the women, their anxieties, their aspirations. Unlike them too he has time to reflect on history, on Denmark's growth into a prosperous democracy forced to participate in European power-struggles and on Marstal's exemplification of this, a small town, at once unique and representative, on the island of Ærø, with a centuries-long maritime history, and a renowned Navigation School.

Marstal is also the birthplace of Carsten Jensen himself: novelist, political commentator and winner of this year's Olof Palme Prize. In his most ambitious and successful novel to date he takes his native port, where the oldest streets all run in straight lines to the sea, to epitomise major stands not just of Danish but Western history – and the assumptions which have borne it.

Much in its subject-matter is brutal, ugly, detestable. With the town's emphasis on nautical life, its landlubber citizens can be thwarted, bitter people – like the schoolmaster Isager, whose cruelty corrupts his charges, blunting their sensibilities. We, the Drowned makes us appreciate – in vivid detail – how our present lives in commercially successful societies at peace with each other rest even now on horrific exploitation of the inarticulate, often compelled to commit acts whose savage violence we would rather forget.

In this lies the book's principal strength. Nowhere is it more feelingly shown than in its history of Albert Madsen on his return to Marstal after his ghastly voyage in search of his errant father. Childless and lonely, Albert takes up the education of a young sea-orphaned boy, Knud Erik, who will be the central figure of the second half of the book, and the hero (to use a word he himself would reject) of its Second World War section, set in Arctic seas north of Russia. Albert's earlier death, frozen upright on a salt-marsh with his beloved sea-boots on, has an iconic quality for his fellow-Marstallers, charged as it is with moral independence.

This is a great hamper of a novel, and some of what is packed into it – for instance, the rogue ship laden with Melanesians as fodder for cannibals – fits in only with difficulty alongside its more sober stories. That is possibly the point. Life is not tidy, just as seas can always turn wild, bringing the deaths their measurelessness symbolises. Every day gives us cause for fear and sorrow but, as on the celebratory one with which the novel concludes, we can defy them by "dancing with the drowned" because "they were us".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried