Book Review: We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen

There was a time when I didn’t shy away from big books. There was a time when I used to pick up a book set in a place I was soon to visit. There was a time when I traveled. There was such a time before COVID, before kids. That time might have passed, but We The Drowned by Carsten Jensen has stayed with me for years.

See, in the summer of 2015 I was to travel to Denmark for the wedding of a close relative. And I saw this beautiful copy of We, The Drown by Carsten Jensen (originally published in Danish in 2006) in the airport bookstore and I felt immediately drawn to it. I don’t think I even looked at the summary of the plot on the back. I just picked it up and started it right away. It felt meant to be. I was indeed lucky for it would become one of my all-time favorites. I am not alone, it is one of the most-loved books of Danish fiction in recent years. A much awaited TV series based on the book, directed by Danish-born Hollywood-famous Mikael Salomon (who directed Spielberg’s Band of Brothers), and is supposed to be in the late stages of development. I do hope that US audiences get to watch it as well. It is definitely a binge-worthy story.

An epic (with hints of the Odyssey) spanning almost one hundred years, from 1848 to 1945 set around the small coastal two of Marstal in Denmark that takes you for a trip around the world, from the North Sea to Samoa, Australia and Newfoundland. It starts with a battle in the First Schleswig War between Denmark and Germany, where seafarers are thrown into the ring. A quirky character, Laurids Madsen, ends up traumatized and leaves his family of four behind while looking for his fortune on yet another seafaring adventure. His son Albert cannot get over his father’s disappearance and as soon as he is old enough, he embarks on an adventure himself, searching for his father from boat to boat around the world. This is a story about Marstal, though, and its people as much as it is about Laurids and his son.

What amazed me the most about this book is that every single chapter in the nearly 700 pages book starts with a very catchy and memorable phrase. It sets the mood right from the very beginning. What can you expect from a book that begins like this:

Many years ago there lived a man called Laurids Madsen, who went up to Heaven and came down again, thanks to his boots.

And his boots would prove to be a theme throughout the book, linking father and son and their destinies. In this times when we can no longer travel, though a heavier paperback than your regular beach read, this book will take you places.


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