I wanted my 400th book to be a big one, so I chose this 675-page Danish epic, and I’m glad I did. What a wonderful novel. While there are characters at its center – my favorite being Albert Madsen – it is a place that takes on the role of the protagonist, Marstal, a port town in Denmark. The book takes us from the mid-19th century to the end of the second World War. We watch how the town changes, how the people change, and how the sea (perhaps the antagonist?) changes.
Though the book has such a broad scope, there are details that remain vivid – a shrunken head, a suitcase that gets knocked open a train station. Jensen works well on both the small and large canvas.
The book is grounded in so much specific realism, but Jensen is also able to introduce moments of miracles and dreams, and he integrates them flawlessly.
If I have a criticism, it is a minor one – that Jensen’s work is better on land than sea. When the plot shifts primarily to the sea, he relies on perhaps one too many coincidences to keep the plot moving forward.
In the end, I think this is a book that’s about the first word of its title, “We.” It’s about community and fellowship formed by necessity, formed by the sea. The notion of “We” evolves from beginning to end, from the gangs on the island, to the women left behind, to the sailors left behind as there are changes in shipping, to the shifting role of the Danish in World War II.