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The Daughters of Mars
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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!
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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.
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on 20 August 2013
This novel is set in the First World War. There is likely to be a flood of such books as the hundredth anniversary of 1914 approaches. The battlefields of the Somme have already seen many writers trudging their trenches. So this would have to be very good to be memorable. And I think it is good.
The author follows a group of young Australian nurses who go to war. The two central characters are sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance. He gets the complicated relationship between them really well. The personalities of their colleagues,their responses and reactions, are painted against the traumas of that conflict. Into the circle are drawn husbands and lovers, friends and enemies, superiors and orderlies.
The main talking points of the First World War are covered - Gallipoli, conscription, the nature of the enemy, death and disfigurement, the futility of it all and finally the Spanish flu. But the novel is not just a check-list. It is very much about this group of women - as women, as nurses and as Australians.
Kenneally made use of letters and diaries and this is clear from the detailed and accurate descriptions of treatments and medicines then in use. He also shows the incompetence of bureaucrats [part of health care everywhere, of course] and the heroism and imagination of pioneering nurses and doctors.
The traumatic set-pieces of the novel are very well written without being overplayed. He brilliantly conveys the fear and tragedy of death on land, sea and air. There is an intriguing conclusion. It is a moving story, well told.
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on 23 September 2013
Thomas Keneally says in the in the Author's Note section (together with other information) that: "The punctuation used in this narrative might seem occasionally eccentric, but is designed to honour that of the forgotten private journals of the Great War, written by men and women who frequently favoured dashes rather than commas".

This note on punctuation may well have been better placed at the beginning, rather than at the end of the novel but I would say that the style of the punctuation works perfectly.

The narrative centres arround sibling nurses Sally and Naomi, their relationship with each other and with the numerous supporting cast of characters and their relationship with the war. This is not a short novel but it is certainly not too long with some 35 chapters spread over 520 pages.

The prose, whether the tension of many casualties and deaths from various wounds and illnesses (and not all necessarily physical ones) or the development of characters to become potential lovers or simply the uncertainty of war for those involved - is a delight.

It appears to be very thoroughly researched which is no surprise in a novel from Thomas Keneally.

The Daughters of Mars shows what a dramatic impact the nurses had on the war and how the war impacted on them.

Stunning novel, brilliantly crafted.
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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.
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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.
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on 13 November 2013
The First World War being one of my major areas of interest for fiction, and already having several novels set in the nursing arena, buying this was a given.
And impressive it was indeed, in its handling of the tremendous research and the portraying it through the eyes of Sally and Naomi, in the clarity of the writing and the impetus given to the progress through years.
I am, nevertheless, still processing the ending; but have overcome my initial desire to drop my rating by one star.
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on 2 January 2015
I purchased this book after reading such incredulous reviews, thinking it would be exactly right for me. Well, I'm 25% in and frankly, when is it going to begin I ask myself ?? The phraseology is strange - not at all clever as some reviewers have commented. To my mind, a person reads a book for the story content not the cleverness or not as the case may be, of the phraseology. And 25% in, there hasn't been much of a storyline.
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on 3 March 2018
Keneally's work is meticulously researched and written with great sensitivity and vigour. At times I found the realism of the war and its effects hard to bear. It covers a piece of history too rarely visited: the contribution of the Australian troops and the essential role played by the medics.
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on 3 November 2013
Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, Keneally tells an engrossing tale of the lives of Australian nurses behind the front lines in the First World War. Written without conventional punctuation to reflect the style of private journals of men and women who served on the front, this book fully deserved recognition it received.

In many ways it is a traditional story as it follows the lives of the Durance sisters, Sally and Naomi, from their origins in a small farming community to the war in the Dardanelles and the Western Front in France. Opening with the death of their mother from cervical cancer, which Sally, having stolen morphine from the hospital in which she is working, believes Naomi has used to kill their mother, we are drawn quickly into the theme of life and death, and the issue of suffering and its alleviation which run through the book.

Keneally gives us a brilliant insight into the effects of the war, not through a description of the battlefield, but the devastating effect, both physical and mental, on the men who are fighting and of those who are looking after them. For the Durance sisters and the others in charge of their care, and themselves exposed to considerable danger, there is need for mental and physical courage.

The distance between combatants and carers is highlighted in a pivotal incident when the army takes over the hospital ship, the Archimedes, serving the soldiers trapped at Gallipoli to transport soldiers and horses, though leaving the hospital to continue with the medical staff on board. It is "lunacy as usual" remarks a matron, but the nurses feel a moral obligation to stay with the ship to continue to provide medical treatment for soldiers despite their well-founded fears. The sinking of the ship and rescue of most of the nurses and the different responses by individuals and between men and women to adversity provides the backdrop to the rest of the book as does the lunacy of war and those who run it.

Keneally manages to capture the horror of war, but also the extraordinary human spirit and courage which enables people not only to survive physically, but to hold on to their sanity. In primitive working conditions and with limited, by today's standards, medical knowledge nurses and doctors struggle to save lives and rebuild shattered bodies and minds. The innocence, particularly of those like Sally Durance who had not left her rural community before signing up, contrasts vividly with their capacity to face up to the horrors of war.

Other themes are woven in: art through Sally's man Charlie, an artist who visits buildings and galleries with her when they are on leave; the question of conscription and the role of volunteers through Kiernan, a Quaker who has joined up to serve in a non-combatant role, but is required to fight when conscription is rejected and more fighting men are required; and the role of voluntary service in the hospital where the sisters work which has been established by the formidable Lady Tarlton providing a service and developing new techniques and procedures which the conventional military hospitals are unable to do; and finally, there are the cultural gaps between the colonials and the British, not drawn as caricatures but, on the whole, in a far more nuanced way.

Ambiguity runs through the book, starting with the death of Mrs Durance and ending with the outbreak of Spanish flu across Europe including the battlefields of the Western Front. Many of the nurses including Sally and Naomi are amongst the victims as the war ends. Keneally has one last surprise - two possible endings, though he does tell us that "the reality that is most inhabited and concrete is the one that counts - although perhaps by a mere whisper of a degree".
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