Expectations ahead of Thomas Keneally's "The Daughters of Mars" are understandably high. He regularly features on the Booker shortlist and has won the prize in the past with "Shindler's Ark". While his subject matter, World War I, is hardly the most original, his slant on the story is, and this is a book that deserves to sit with the very best of the many books on that subject, including "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "Birdsong" (amongst many others). It's that good and that powerful.
Keneally's approach to the story is to tell it from the point of view of two Australian sisters who volunteer for nursing duties. From a rural background both girls are getting over the death of their mother about which they may or may not have cause to feel guilt. Before the war, they are not close. Sally, the younger sister and the main focus of much of the book, stayed at home to nurse her mother while her elder sister Naomi left to work in the bright lights of the city. The death of their mother if anything forces the Durance sisters further apart but shared experiences of the horrors of war will change that.
The Australian angle adds great depth to the story as apart from the Commonwealth duties, this was a war that could so easily have been someone else's problem for the girls. The other nurses they befriend on their journey are all similarly independent minded and plucky. Keneally tells us little about them but lets their characters come through over time. At first this can be difficult to keep track of but as the book progresses, we start to care deeply about all of them for all their faults and foibles. The fact that it took a strong amount of independence of character to volunteer doesn't make these easy people to initially warm to but as we share their experiences you cannot help but admire and love them.
By definition the nurses remained on the periphery of the action, although by decreasingly small geographic distances. This might have led to a feeling of detachment but it allows Keneally to evoke how these brave girls experienced the war as they got closer and closer to the action. They go from virtual sightseers in Egypt where their troop ship first arrives to being very much in the thick of things.
Being Australian, the first action they are close to is Gallipoli where they work on a hospital ship, but their adventures don't end there as they get closer and closer to the action in France. Along the way there are remarkable friendships, romantic encounters and a wealth of often quite graphic medical encounters. It's beautifully researched and you quickly become taken up in the story. I'm not a huge fan of the hospital drama genre but even I was taken in.
The message of the story is not much more profound than what separates survivors from the fallen is little more than a gossamer thread of luck. However, it stands as a fitting tribute to the braveness of these young girls who volunteered to sign up to a fight so far away from home even when the authorities were trying to keep women from the front line.
Unfortunately one of the most remarkable aspects of the book is the ending, which of course I can reveal little about here. Suffice to say that it is unexpected after what has been a very conventional narrative up to that point. It's poignant and moving and is one of those endings that you will just want to talk about with someone else who has read the book. Get a friend to read it at the same time, because you will want to talk about the ending. Trust me.
There has been rather a large amount of First World War fiction published in recent years, but Thomas Keneally's latest novel 'The Daughters of Mars' looks at the horrors of war from a slightly different and very interesting aspect.
Australian sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, share little in common; Sally stays at home on the family's dairy farm with their ailing mother, while Naomi leaves the responsibility of life at home to her sister, while she goes off to work in Sydney. After the death of their mother and hiding a deep secret they are reluctantly bound to share, the girls, who are both registered nurses, decide to escape their past lives and volunteer to help in the war effort. They are both sent to Egypt and then to the Dardanelles on the hospital ship 'Archimedes' where they soon become involved with coping with the carnage at Gallipoli. After this very real taste of dealing the horrors of war, the sisters later find themselves in hospitals situated close to the Western Front where, of course, they must face yet more carnage as they nurse soldiers who have been terribly injured, not just by gunfire and explosives, but by the dreadful effects of poisonous gases. As the sisters courageously face the trauma of the terrible physical and mental injuries suffered by the men in their care, they begin to grow closer and realize that it is not too late for them to become sisters in the real sense of the word. And it is here that the girls meet two special men who they feel they could spend their future lives with - providing there will actually be a future for them at all.
Inspired by real life journals of Australian nursing staff, this is an amazing story of the women who voluntarily risked their lives to help towards the war effort and gives a fascinating portrait of the Great War from the aspect of those women. Thomas Keneally cleverly demonstrates to the reader not just the huge tragedy of war, but also the smaller and more personal tragedies that befall the individuals involved. My sister received an early copy of this novel and allowed me to read it first provided I did so very quickly; well I managed it easily because the story drew me in and kept hold of my attention all the way to the rather unusual ending - of which I cannot say more as I do not wish to spoil it for prospective readers, but I will just say that it's an ending I shall be looking forward to discussing with others who have read this compelling and moving story.
on 17 March 2013
Thomas Keneally has created a rich tapestry of characters and events in this superb novel. I'm now reading (in the Kindle version) the final quarter, but whatever happens in this last section of the book will not change my view that this is worth every one of the 5 stars I've awarded. The characters become firmly etched in the mind as one reads this book, especially Naomi and Sally, and Keneally really captures the essence of the times, with the mores of human relationships particularly well addressed, despite the horrors surrounding the protagonists. The focus on those who are just behind the front line, dealing with the terrible results of mechanised warfare, has been a revelation but no less horrific seen through the eyes of the doctors and nurses tending the wounded and dying. The reality of Owen's '..guttering, choking, drowning..' victims of gas attacks is brought home as we hear how they had to be treated, and how many did not survive. I did struggle with his use of language at first until I realised he is writing as someone would have written contemporaneously with the events he is portraying. Truly a masterwork!
In 1914, when War breaks out in Europe, two Australian sisters, both nurses, feel the call of their profession and travel far from their comfort zone and their country to do their duty; but called by something more than duty - an inevitability they both feel to do what they must in the world that has become unknowable. There's a naivety, an innocence that was so soon to be lost in these characters and their world which is I think real and shocking to us in our cynical world where we know what the War really became and what it meant. From Australia to Egypt to the Dardanelles to Greece, England and France, the men get younger and the war gets more brutal and more horrifying. The nurses deal with shrapnel, dysentery, gas attacks and the horrors that nobody could ever have imagined before 1914.
I like that the book continues right to the end of the War in 1918 and beyond. But I did have some thought that book in some ways missed opportunities. While the action is immediate, horrifying and real, I found the narrative style, with no direct dialogue to be somewhat offputting, and to remove the character somewhat from the story itself. It prevented me from engaging with the characters themselves as much perhaps as the author would have wished; the story became about the war itself, rather than the women (and men) involved in the narrative.
And, putting on my New Zealand patriot hat for a moment, the non-mention of New Zealand or the New Zealand soldiers who also fought alongside their Australian and British counterparts in the War was very noticable and disappointing. My Scottish-born, New Zealand grandfather fought and was wounded at Passchendaele. Over 100,000 New Zealanders fought in WWI, and hundreds of NZ nurses served overseas. Yet there was only one place that I can think of in a book of just under 600 pages when the New Zealanders were even mentioned!
This is a really good novel, but it could have been an epic, if only we could have got under the skin of the characters, especially the two sisters more. I did feel the ending was a bit of a cop-out too; you'll understand why I feel that if you have read the book. Instead of the great book we could have got, I felt we were reading the story through a barrier of remove which dulled the senses somewhat on the story that the book was trying to portray. The whole book needed tightening up. A pity.
(4.5 stars) In one of his most expansive novels since Confederates, Australian author Thomas Keneally recreates the cataclysm of World War I, providing an epic vision of warfare with all its horrors, while focusing on the specific contributions of Australia, and its nurses in particular, to Britain's war effort. Creating two sisters, young nurses from rural New South Wales, who volunteer to serve in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, Keneally creates the points of view through which he then describes the war, its atrocities, and the heroic actions of its Australian participants. The result is a grand saga in which these two nurses, their colleagues, their patients, and their soldier friends share their lives and their feelings as they deal with the accidents of fate which will change them all.
Nurses Naomi Durance and her younger sister Sally have a testy relationship with each other when they ship out of Australia at the beginning of the war, and they often go in different directions to different locations during the war, each woman providing a unique point of view which broadens the reader's understanding of the war and expands the novel's scope. Their lively characterizations bring the reader into the action directly as the sisters and their colleagues observe and share the small, brave moments they experience personally; Keneally's sensitive descriptions make the epic moments of life and death equally as vivid as the novel develops.
After being based in Cairo, the sisters are assigned to a hospital ship involved in the devastating, nine-month-long Battle of Gallipoli which causes over 25,000 deaths and injuries to Australians alone, as they deal with everything from lack of supplies to enemy torpedoes. By 1916, Sally is stationed at a hospital in Rouen, where she must deal with the effects of gas warfare and shellshock. Naomi has traveled to London, where she becomes involved in establishing an Australian Voluntary Hospital in France.
Contemporary medical issues receive significant attention throughout. For the first time, a physician at the clearing station begins to stress the importance of using masks with flu and tuberculosis patients. Gas attacks continue, hospitals are bombed, and aid posts and dressing stations must sometimes be abandoned, even while the wounded still occupy them. Gender issues occur, including rape, and some officers do not regard it as a crime worth pursuing. Nurses are occasionally treated as low-level servants, instead of professionals. Other issues, such as suicide, euthanasia, and the question of conscription play a part here, too. The need of all participants, among both the nurses and the soldiers, for connection and companionship is a major theme, and numerous love stories add to the complexities of the life at the front.
Engaging and often moving, the novel explores life at the front a hundred years ago, with main characters whose psychological acuity gives them some depth, though the focus is often on their day to day lives with less attention paid to large themes. Though the novel sometimes get a bit preachy in places and makes occasional moral pronouncements, Keneally has written an ambitious novel which pulls no punches: "There are only two choices, you know. Either die or live well. We live on behalf of thousands who don't. Millions. So let's not mope about it, eh?"
I enjoyed this novel, although perhaps not as unreservedly as some other reviewers. It is a big book with a big, wide ranging plot, covering the period of the Great War, with all it's horrors and suffering.
The central characters are the Australian sisters, nurses Sally and Naomi; two women who are bound by their relationship and a dark secret from their recent past. As the war takes them up through Egypt and finally into France, they make many friends along the way, and both fall in love. These are the bare bones of the story.
This novel is beautifully written and meticulously researched, but I did have one or two slight problems with it. For a start, I never felt that I got to know the sisters quite as well as I would have liked, and the narrative had, for me, a slight stop-start feel to,it. At times it flowed and I found it gripping; at others, it seemed to slow down and become more heavy going. But to cover such a big story and so many years of suffering within 500 pages, and to do it so well, is a huge achievement, and I feel this will come to be considered a very important novel.
My only big problem is with the ending (I can't say why, for obvious reasons). Endings of novels are often difficult, and rarely managed perfectly. This one left me feeling confused and slightly cheated. As another reviewer wrote, I would love to be able to discuss this with someone else who has read the book.
But notwithstanding my (small) doubts, I have no hesitation in recommending this novel.
on 13 March 2013
I could not put this book down. Told from the point of view of Australian 2 sisters who volunteered as nurses in the 1st world war firstly as nurses on board a hospital ship at Gallipoli and then in France behind the Western front, it gave a new slant on the familiar theme of the monumental waste of young lives that was the First World War. It was incredible that the Australians volunteered and kept on going back without conscription. A medical friend of mine found the medical side of it jarred but it did not bother me. The only thing was that I found the "choice" of alternative endings slightly irritating.
on 7 March 2015
I'm sorry to say I had never heard of this author before & can't imagine why! I found The Daughters of Mars a really terrific read. This is an epic novel that should be considered one of the finest novels about the first world war. By following two Australian sisters who are both nurses, firstly in Gallipoli and then in France, Keneally gives us a story that is so immediate it's hard to believe that it wasn't written at the time. Some other reviewers on here did not like the lack of formal puncuation but I found that added to the sense that it was a journal or a letter, and was pleased to read in the Author's Note that he had intended just that. I feel completely bereft now that I have finished the novel and have to leave the Durance sisters and their friends and lovers behind. I feel as if I know these people so well that I would recognise them in the street. The lives of these women are beautifully and sensitively written within the heartbreaking turmoil of the theatre of war. It is a great novel. I will certainly be reading more of Thomas Keneally.
on 14 March 2015
I was looking forward to reading the book but found it hard to get into. It was very well written but too descriptive which delayed the flow of the narrative and I found my mind wandering. The language as formal but the lack of speech marks meant you had to concentrate to see who was talking. An interesting subject but too much detail meant I started to skim over the chapters to get to the end. I didn' t feel a strong connection to the characters and although it was interesting to learn about the experiences of nurses on the front I didn't really have any feelings for things that happened to them. I am glad I read the book as it was a good subject but I just felt uninvolved.
on 26 January 2015
I found it tedious and uninvolving and written as if with an eye on the literary prize for pretentiousness and the longest sentences possible (a seven line sentence with numerous sub-clauses and not very interesting when you get to the end is just annoying). Written in a very passive way, I really couldn't care less about the fate of the most boring nursing sisters on the planet. Great if you like long long descriptions of war wounds. Not if you want any sort of interesting story. A book I'm unlikely to bother finishing. The lack of quote marks for dialogue was just unnecessarily contrived - added nothing and took away a break from the wall of text. The ending seemed to inspire a lot of comment so i skipped the second half of the book and went straight to the last chapters. The 'novelty' of a choose your own ending 9seen that in kids books before) didn't add anything to the story, it just felt like the writer couldn't make up his mind which way he wanted to end the story so obviously liked his own writing so much he let us have both. O joy! Having skipped vast swathes of book I didn't feel I'd missed out on anything and both endings were equally uninteresting. Authors note about why he didn't bother with quotation marks was another pretentious touch. Just because people in wartime didn't necessarily use quote marks is no excuse for you not doing it Mr Kenneally. In one's own journal one can write however one likes. In a book that is about the people who might have written journals it is not good.