I went into my reading of We, the Drowned with certain expectations. Not only was I anticipating an epic, gorgeously written story, but I was expecting a journey on the seas with one character to all ends of the earth. I don't know where I picked up this impression that We, the Drowned was largely about Albert, who searches the world for his lost father—even the novel's blurb alludes to a story much larger than Laurids and Albert—but that was what I expected nonetheless.
Because it wasn't what I wanted, I was disappointed in We, the Drowned. Now how petty is that? At least I'm honest. The story I wanted was nearly seven-hundred pages of a son searching for his father. There would be wonderful character building and a quest that would captivate me until its resolution. Also, there would be monsters and flying ships and unexplained occurrences because not only was I confused about the plot, but somehow I had it in mind that this was heavy in magical realism. Hmmmm. Expectations be damned. Let's just throw my expectations out and start over.
We, the Drowned is structured more like a novel in stories than a traditional novel. There's the episode of Laurids who nearly dies in battle, but miraculously survives unscathed. There is the story of his son, Albert, and his upbringing without a father who mysteriously disappeared. Then there is Albert's adventurous journey on the sea in search for his father. And then there are five hundred more pages. What I thought was the entire subject of the book is resolved in under two hundred pages. There's much more to this book than Laurids and even Albert. Each subsequent story is loosely tied into the stories that preceded it, but they span time and the globe. The thread that unites these stories have more to do with the town of Marstal and the oceans than they do with a singular event or character.
With its fragmented nature, We, the Drowned fails to be the huge epic I imagined, but that does not mean it doesn't succeed in other ways. Jensen's novel utilizes place and object how I expected it to use character and story. Not only are all these tales connected to Marstal, a town which inhabits the story as much as its characters inhabit it, but they're connected to the sea and the professional of seafaring. These are more vital to the story than any character. Once one has forgotten the names of Laurids and Albert, Klara, Knud Erik, Sophie, Herman, one still will recall the name of Marstal. They'll remember the journeys even if they've forgotten which crew sailed on them. And they'll recall the objects—the shrunken head, the boots, the vision of a bird—that outlast all but terrain itself.
It is the vivid settings and strange objects that truly occupy We, the Drowned and take the reader on an adventure. This isn't the timeless quest of a man looking for a father, it is the story of a town that strives to survive and a professional that is as old as time itself.