Tuesday, July 6, 2010

We, The Drowned


I wish I could remember where it was that I first heard of We,The Drowned by Carsten Jansen. I can't help thinking that where ever it was must have recommendations for other books and since Drowned is so very, very good I would like to know all the other books they liked. It had to be somewhere on the internet of course and it was made the book sound so intriguing that I wrote down the title. I wanted to keep a record of it so that when it became available I could get it. Availability was an issue because this novel was originally published in Denmark in 2007. Not only was I going to have to wait for an English language publisher to buy the novel but I was also going to have to wait for it to be translated. ~~sigh~~

Fast forward to April 2010 and voila We, The Drowned makes it's English language debut, but in the U.K. not the states. Oh well. Luckily for me I have an extraordinary friend who lives in London and will send me whatever books I ask for. He's my own private little crack dealer.

The book is divided into 3 parts: local legend Laudris Masden's incredible story, the attempts of his son Albert to find his missing Father and decades later young mother Klara Erik desperate to keep the sons of Marstal, the hometown of the novel, from the sea. When the novel begins in the 1840's the citizens of Marstal are about to be conscripted by the Danish Navy into service in their war with Germany. The novel continues for the next hundred years until the final days of the second World War.

The novel is told by an invisible Greek chorus (the drowned of the title) that seems to be made up of the townspeople of Masden both living and deceased. They move you forward and backward through the characters lives and through the history of the town. After their impressment the first battles that Laudris Masden and his friends find themselves struggling to out last are horrific. Suddenly the book moves from away from the beguiling tall tales and the depth of the novel is revealed. This sets the style for the book. The juxtaposition of the warm, conversational feeling of stories handed down and folk tales treasured with the hard edged, painful experiences of the characters trying to survive life on the sea and the women and children trying to live their lives not knowing if the men will ever return is powerful and affecting.

There is something otherworldly about the sea. It's just outside your door but it has all the strangeness of a fantasy novel. It's a place where nothing is under your control. The rules that govern the rest of us don't apply out there. It takes a writer with a big vision and even bigger skills to capture the fear and it allure of it  while still entertaining and enlightening us. We, The Drowned is enthralling and masterful. Jensen has written one of the best books of the year. You will enter Drowned exactly like you are today and you will leave it knowing about a world that you didn't know existed and with a new understanding of great writing.

I am curious to see how well the publisher sells this book over here. It's coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 2011. HMH isn't known for aggressive marketing or really any marketing as evidenced by their craptastic website. They do publish a large number of literary authors so they have experience with titles outside of the usual bestsellers. Among others they publish: Philip Roth, Cynthis Ozick, Edna O'Brien and Jose Saramago.

There is a huge interest in Scandinavian mysteries right now and no publisher has yet tapped into any other genres by Scandinavian authors and brought them to the U.S. We, The Drowned did win numerous prizes when originally published including the Danske Banks Litteraturpris the Danish equivalent of the Man Booker. So we shall see!

We, The Drowned does further my theory that books that begin with maps and/or a list of characters and/or where the author has named the chapters are destined to be greatly enjoyed. There's a map right there on the page before the chapter titles page! Maybe HMH can use that in their marketing.

If you are interested to know what nautical stories Carsten Jensen considers the best of the best here is a list he made for The Guardian. Warning--looking at this list might increase your own reading list.


P.S. The British edition of Drowned was beautifully translated by Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder.

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