My favourite book of the year is a Danish seafaring epic that has stayed with me from the moment I put it down during the summer. It's size might put some people off but they are fools, I tell you, fools! Here is the review I posted some months back.
Marstal is a town in southern Denmark, the largest on the island of Ærø. It is also this narrator of this remarkable book. It is a 'we' novel, if you will, with the story told by the people of the island, watching one as one hundred years' worth of events unfold around them.
We, The Drowned opens in 1848 when Denmark is at war with Germany. Marstal is on the coast, populated by sailors, so it is only proper that the men of the town are enlisted to join the naval attack. It is a disaster, with many lives lost, but Laurids Madsen survives after been blown sky high and landing back on deck feet first in his trusty boots. A miracle, of sorts, and he becomes a local celebrity when he returns home.
But such fame sit uncomfortably with the big man and he is soon off to sea again, last heard of in Australia never to return to his wife and family in Marstal.
The story then shifts its focus to Madsen's son, Albert, watching him grow up until he too goes to sea, eventually travelling halfway around the globe in search of his father.
Later, when Albert is an old man, unmarried and childless, he is persuaded to spend time with a young boy, Knud Erik, who has lost his own father to the waves and in need of a male influence in his life. The relationship softens the weatherbeaten sailor and has a profound effect on both of them.
And it is Knud Erik who takes us through the Second World War and on to the end of the book. A century of sea stories, of deaths by drowning, of sailors, boats and foreign climes.
And of the women left behind.
As you may expect from a book that encompasses an entire century it is rather long, nearly 700 pages to be (rather less than) precise, but it never feels laboured, at no point does it drag. The language is simple and direct, a storyteller's style, and the translators, Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder, appear to have done a wonderful job.
And the narrator(s) - the story is told by the people of the village as a collective 'we' - works brilliantly. At first you assume that the voice is that of one of the sailors going off to fight the Germans but then the same voice tells of Albert's schooldays and continues for another seventy years or so. It is a difficult device to pull off but Carsten Jensen does it to perfection. You don't question it for a second.
I was swept away (pun noted but not intended) by this wonderful book. I didn't want it to end and thankfully, given its length, it didn't do so for some considerable time. It was voted the greatest Danish book of the last 25 years. I have no idea what sort of competition it was up against but its victory doesn't surprise me: it is one of the best books I have read in the past 25 years as well.
I have been partial to all things nautical this year (check out my album of the year for further evidence of this) which may explain why I warmed to this so much. I also happened to be reading it on an island, which helped set the mood. It is a book that I am eager to re-read, although I will wait a while to ensure sufficient detail becomes lost to the mists of time, and I have collected the author's other books in anticipation of future joys.
If you have a few days to curl up in an armchair over the Christmas break then you could make those days really special by having this in your hands while you do so. You won't regret it.
So, what was your favourite book of the year?