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We, the Drowned Hardcover – February 9, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

Carsten Jensen’s debut novel has taken the world by storm. Already hailed in Europe as an instant classic, We, the Drowned is the story of the port town of Marstal, whose inhabitants have sailed the world’s oceans aboard freight ships for centuries. Spanning over a hundred years, from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War, and from the barren rocks of Newfoundland to the lush plantations of Samoa, from the roughest bars in Tasmania, to the frozen coasts of northern Russia, We, the Drowned spins a magnificent tale of love, war, and adventure, a tale of the men who go to sea and the women they leave behind.

Ships are wrecked at sea and blown up during wars, they are places of terror and violence, yet they continue to lure each generation of Marstal men—fathers and sons—away. Strong, resilient, women raise families alone and sometimes take history into their own hands. There are cannibals here, shrunken heads, prophetic dreams, forbidden passions, cowards, heroes, devastating tragedies, and miraculous survivals—everything that a town like Marstal has actually experienced, and that makes We, the Drowned an unforgettable novel, destined to take its place among the greatest seafaring literature.

A Q & A with Author Carsten Jensen

Q: We, the Drowned has become an international sensation. Are you surprised at the universal appeal of this story?

A: I had already worked for a couple of years on We, the Drowned when my female cousin asked me a very unsettling question. Do you really think, she asked me, that this novel of yours is going to interest anyone outside of our little island?

I could only say: I hope so, but there was no way I could know. I did everything I could to see the universal aspects of the history of a little seafaring town on a forgotten island in a remote corner of the Baltic. But I had to admit it was a very local story, and maybe that was what interested me: the meeting between the local and the global, because that is what the sailor is: somebody who goes everywhere. The sailor is a universal figure.

But writing a novel is always taking a risk. You never know whether there is anyone out there until you have tried reaching them. The sailor often sails into the unknown. So does the writer.

Q:What is it about sailing, the allure of the sea, that draws so many men, and you to write about it? What do you think is the modern equivalent of taking to the sea?

A: A farmer in a traditional farming community is not drawn to the soil. He has no choice. Neither had the sailors of Marstal. This was the only livelihood open to them. Whether they decided to enlist on the Seagull or the Albatros, that was all the choice they had. There was nothing romantic about it.

After the book was published I was invited to have coffee with the Admiral of the Danish Navy, Niels Vang, who turned out to be a great fan of the book. The only people today laboring under the same harsh conditions as the sailors in your book, he said to me, are professional soldiers. They are the only ones confronted with the possibility of dying on the job in the same way that your sailors were.

Q: You have called the sailor the forefather of globalization. Do you, as a journalist, relate to the sailor?

A: When the sailor returned to his hometown he knew one thing the farmers back home never knew: that there was more than one way of doing things. The farmer thought he was the center of the world, the sailor knew he wasn’t. I think this a healthy knowledge.

Q: How did you research the novel, which spans 100 years and many oceans?

A: I did a lot of research for the book, but I also made a lot of things up. I was helped by the sailor’s museum of Marstal, a totally homegrown, very eccentric museum. They have an amazing archive, and when I dove into it, I realized that within the last 20 to 30 years, one half of the inhabitants of Marstal have done nothing but interview the other half.

Then, together with the local public library, I organized a lot of town meetings where I read from the work in progress and explained my ideas. The people of Marstal, being very curious, showed up in great numbers. I made it clear to them that this was part of a deal: I would give them a book about their town, but I needed their help, too. So I was invited home, seated in the sofa, served coffee, and then I was presented with old letters, diaries, and unpublished memories meant for only the closest family. All this became a huge source of inspiration for me. It also meant that the whole town really ended up feeling that this was their book as much as mine.

And after the publication of the book, many of the townspeople told me that they had heard all the stories in the book as children, and I said: But you can’t have because I made them up. I was inspired, yes, but not to the extent that I just wrote everything I heard. But people could no longer distinguish reality from fiction.

Q: We, the Drowned is written in first person plural, as a collective consciousness of the people of Marstal. Why did you choose to write the book this way?

A: The "we" telling the story represents the collective memory of the town, but not everybody is included. It is the memory of the men, since the lives of men and women are so dramatically different in a seafaring community. The women have their own separate story slowing unfolding in the novel alongside that of the men.

The "we" is a kind of Greek chorus forever present on the stage, always commenting and introducing, but as a storyteller the "we" is also involved in the story, partial and taking sides, which means that it is not always reliable.

The "we" seems all-knowing, but how can it know the most intimate things that go on between people? Well, maybe it doesn’t know. What you don’t know in a small community you invent and that is also called gossip. Gossip is an essential part of people’s lives, and this is what I want my novel to mirror. It is full of real history, fiction, and gossip, too, because that is how the world works.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. An international hit, this bold seafaring epic spans 100 years in the lives of the men and women from a small town on an island off the Danish coast. Starting with the war between Germany and Denmark in 1848 and continuing through WWII, the men of Marstal sail, fight, trade, and die at sea while the women raise their children and wait for their husbands' and sons' uncertain return. The story loosely follows one family, the Madsens, beginning with the legendary Laurids Madsen, "best known for having single-handedly started a war," and then his son, Albert, and a boy named Knud Erik, whom Albert takes under his wing. From adventures on the storm-ravaged seas and in exotic lands, to battles in town over the shipping industry and family life, dozens of stories coalesce into an odyssey taut with action and drama and suffused with enough heart to satisfy readers who want more than the breakneck thrills of ships battling the elements. By the time readers turn the final page, they will have come to intimately know this town and its sailors who tear out across an unforgiving sea. (Feb.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (February 9, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151013772
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151013777
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (176 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #57,546 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

98 of 102 people found the following review helpful By Liat2768 TOP 500 REVIEWER on January 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Carsten Jensen's Leviathan 'We, the Drowned' has already won the Danske Banks Litteraturpris, and now, finally in translation, it is bound to take the English speaking world by storm. Despite the massive size of the book (nearly 700 pages) the action is swift and it is immensely readable.

The spine that holds the novel together is the shipping town of Marstal where almost every able man heads off to sea as soon as he is of age. The story starts in 1848 with the larger than life character of Laurids Masden who, we are told ' went up to heaven and came down again, thanks to his boots.' Going off to war with the Germans causes Laurids to return a changed man and he soon abandons his family and his fabled boots to disappear somewhere in the Pacific.

His son Albert grows up in Marstal (and this section provides the reader with a rollicking set of tales as good as those associated with Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer), steps into his father's boots and sets off to look for him. The stories of Albert's Odyssey include, pirates, cannibals, shrunken heads, abusive first mates, murders and near mutinies. There's more than enough to enthrall any reader!

Aging into a comfortably well to do and lonely old man Albert has a young boy named Knud Erik thrust under his wing. Man and boy become deeply attached to one another and the boots inevitably are part of the climax of this tale as well.

Knud Erik now takes the helm of the story and suddenly the seascape and routes become more familiar to the reader. Schooners are replaced by Steamers and when Knud Erik (who has his own set of Twain like childhood tales - also involving the ever famous boots and even a murderer!) finally heads off to war it is a war we, the readers, begin to recognise.
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114 of 124 people found the following review helpful By HardyBoy64 VINE VOICE on April 9, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This novel really grabbed my attention. The first half of the book is stunning with interesting episodes of sailor life in the Danish town of Marstal. The first part focuses on the 19th century and the protagonists are children/young adults whose reaction to their school teachers, their parents and rough way of life provide some astonishing stories of survival. The narrative style is quite interesting as well, as the narrator used the 1st person plural (we) as the testimonial voice of the text. I can't emphasize enough how much I loved the first half of this book.

Albert Madsen is the focal point of the story and his search for his long lost father in the South Pacific Islands is both fascinating and engaging. He serves, you might say, as a bridge between the first generation and the next one. This is when the book goes downhill for me. To use the sailor imagery of the novel, the narrative sinks after the first half. Here is why:

The tone of the novel is high literary and the power of the narrative language is undeniable. When Albert turns out to be a man with no respect for women whose sexual crimes against them are shocking (since nothing remotely as offensive happens in the first half of the book, which is about 300 pages), the tone of the novel descends to pop fiction fluff. Knud is Albert's somewhat adopted son and Knud's experiences are as disturbing and shocking as well. Random sexual encounters of the second half demean the novel and the last half of the novel is a disappointment. The interesting "WE" narrative is dropped until the very end of the book and honestly, the second half of the novel does not even feel like it's the same book. This is a shame, because the novel has such an amazing beginning.
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57 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Ursiform VINE VOICE on January 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is the (fictionalized) tale of the Danish port city of Marstal from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. The men go to sea--usually coming home, sometimes not--and the woman maintain the society.

Long-established ways are challenged over this century of time. First by the Great War; Denmark was neutral, but the ships of Marstal plied the hostile waters of war. Then by the shift from sail to steam, which changed the relationship between seaman, ship, and the sea itself. And then by the unprecedented horror of the Second World War. Marstal emerged a smaller and emasculated town yet, ironically, one where the young and middle aged men are present.

To cover such a long period a series of linked stories is needed. I found the life of Albert Madsen to be the most compelling section of the book. A child in the beginning, he lives to see the end of the first World War; he is the moral authority of the old Marstal. And he is a presence in all that follows.

Where Albert was the driving presence in the first two sections of the novel, the third turns to less compelling characters bringing--or not bringing, but I don't want to signal the plot too much--Marstal into the age of steam. This section highlights the dislocations of the women and adolescent males of the town. But it much less about the sea, and Jensen is at his best when the sea is his driving force.

The final section has a very different sense to it, surely intentional. It is, after all, a single chapter titled "The End of the World". Its central character is Knud Erik. His father was lost at sea, to the eternal horror of his mother. As a boy he is taken under the wing of the elderly Albert, and becomes his disciple for the purpose of the story.
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