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The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally If you are looking for a big book to lose yourself in this winter you can’t do better than to choose The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally. This is the 29th book by the prolific Australian writer and novelist. Most well known for his 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark (later filmed as Schindler’s List), some of the others I have enjoyed are River Town, Women of the Inner Sea, and The Widow and Her Hero.

The Daughters of Mars tells the story of Australian nurses caring for the wounded from Gallipoli, in Greece and North Africa, and later in France on the Western Front during the First World War. The central characters are two sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance. Both become nurses, Sally living at home and working in a small hospital near the family dairy farm, Naomi, the more worldly sister who got away, in a city hospital. In the shadow of their mother’s death, at the beginning of World War I, with a desire to get away from the past, these young women apply to be nursing sisters with the Australian Nursing Corps. Within a few pages of the novel they are on a ship heading to Egypt for training.

Thomas Keneally found the experiences of First World War Australian nurses more and more fascinating as he read their journals, vivid historical detail about their lives during those years and the horrors to which they were exposed. He admits to “stealing” the experiences of their harrowing work in field hospitals close to the front. Sally and Naomi survive a shipwreck, when their hospital ship is sunk, an event based on the sinking of the HMS Marquette, a New Zealand ship that sank in WW I. As Thomas Keneally said in a BBC interview “fiction is lies piled end on end” but the truth behind the fiction is what makes this novel so exceptionally real. The character of Lady Tarlton who established her own hospital in France is based on Lady Dudley, wife of a British Governor General, who established the bush nursing service in Australia and later funded and worked in her own hospital where one of the Durance sisters spends much of the war.

This novel does not dismiss the relentless horror of war, the wounds, the gangrene, the appalling injuries, and finally even as the war is coming to an end, the influenza that killed so many, soldiers and nurses. Thomas Keneally calls this his “anti-war novel”, writing about war as both astounding and horrifying. We read about the lives of the nurses, Sally and Naomi in two very different hospitals, and the women who work with them, the friendships that develop. And the lives of the soldiers they meet, some patients, their need to have someone waiting for them when they head into battle, to feel there is a life to come back to.

Thomas Keneally says that the “story of the trenches has been superbly told by historians and novelists” so he has chosen instead to tell the story of those who played such an important part in the war, the story of the nurses. Who survives and who does not becomes a concern for the reader. We know from the beginning that it is likely that one of the sisters does not return – but whether she has died or simply not returned to Australia because she is living elsewhere, we do not know.

There are lots of excellent books about the First World War, including Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, but I had never read anything about the Australians, and the front line nurses. My great aunt Elsie Nichols was an American army nurse in World War II, survived the sinking of HMS Newfoundland, followed the army from North Africa into Italy and was awarded the Purple Heart. I have read many accounts of the American nurses, but none described the experience of being a nurse so close to the front lines of battle as vividly as does Thomas Keneally. This is also a book about a time when women had the opportunity to find their own strength, and as one character says that he will “either die or live well” if he survives this war.

Keneally, at the age of 77, has presented us with a huge book, perhaps his best, with his ability to write about pain, and the human ability to tolerate pain – emotional and physical – and the will to live that surmounts all.

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