An epic journey often ends at home. Odysseus was sailing home towards his wife and family, Jason and the Argonauts return home to Thessaly with the Golden Fleece, King Arthur’s Knights return to Camelot after they fail or succeed at their Grail Quest, and, in more modern literature, Frodo returns to the Shire. The hero of an epic fights to preserve his home, and is drawn back there after many adventures. Similarly, sailors paint their bodies with reminders of home: names of loved ones, swallows who travel far but always return to the nest, and navigational stars pointing them home.
Appropriately, Carsten Jensen’s novel We, the Drowned centers its epic tales of traveling the seven seas on the place all of the characters at one point call home: the port town of Marstal, Denmark. Spinning tales of adventure spanning more than a century, Jensen draws from the rich history of Marstal, where he grew up, as well as generations of nautical literature.
Told in a series of shorter stories, reading We, the Drowned is more like listening to the bedtime stories of childhood and the legends you hear around the campfire than reading a 700-page tome. The story loosely follows three generations of Marstallers as they are drawn to the magic and adventure of the sea, living their lives at the beck and call of King Neptune.
The tale begins with Laurids Madsen, the sailor who “went up to Heaven and came down again, thanks to his boots,” and who eventually disappears into an Australian port. The story of his son and their generation growing up is fraught with the misery of a sadistic teacher and lost fathers, but Albert, Laurids son, becomes determined to find him. Albert becomes a central focus of the book, representing Marstal’s past, present and future.
The stories range from shrunken heads and selfish traders to brutal wars and sweet romances. These adventures occur wherever the winds blow the sailors of Marstal, including the coasts of Pacific Islands, the Americas, the depths of Africa, and the frigid waters of the Arctic.
We, the Drowned is a fascinating nautical epic, exploring all of the fantastic, wonderful, terrible and awesome faces of the ocean and the people who travel King Neptune’s realm.