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".

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