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on 19 March 2016
This literary novel takes us deep into the trials of nurses during WWI. We experience it through the eyes of two sisters, Sally and Naomi. After their mother dies, they leave their farm in Australia to volunteer their nursing skills. They leave, not together, but separately as estranged sisters who carry a terrible secret. As the war continues, their paths criss-cross and their adventures, as well as friendships, overlap. This broadened vision shows us more vividly the hardships nurses share among themselves and the soldiers they try to save. We come to care not only for the sisters but for their friends as well. Australian terms and a preponderance of characters cause some confusion, but the story remains highly readable.
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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 8 December 2015
I see other Reviews comment on medical practice but it is of interest to me that the old-fashioned methods for some symptoms could still be the best - & I'm not even a doctor! I don't know anything about this author whether he is Australian, American or a medic? Refreshing read as a different perspective on the Great War. I found it to be by the end an almost-true story woven into a factual background - I did wonder about the ambulances though!
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In Sydney in 1914 sisters Naomi and Sally Durance sign up as volunteer nurses for the war that has just broken out in Europe. For them both, enlistment is an escape from their past and an opportunity to enlarge their horizons. Travelling first to Africa, then on to Gallipoli and France, they are soon confronted with the horrors of war, and the book chronicles their experiences as they face the brutality and savagery of WWI. The subject matter, of course, is not original, but Keneally’s take on it is, for he focuses almost entirely on the experiences of the nurses who served in hospitals and medical centres near the battlefields. Based on a wide range of diaries and memoirs, Keneally presents us with an extraordinarily detailed account of what their work was like. At times there is an almost documentary feel to the descriptions of the wounds, amputations, treatments and procedures, the sights, sounds and smells of battlefield medicine. No detail is left to our imagination. The descriptions are incredibly graphic and all the more powerful for being so. Keneally is not interested in battles or actual warfare, in armaments and regiments – what concerns him is the portrayal of what happens when the wounded, maimed and dying are taken from the front line.
This is a long novel, and I enjoyed every page. Many other novels deal with the actual fighting, but I found this one so powerful in its emphasis on human suffering and endurance, and so evocative of the conditions the nurses had to face, that I feel it should be ranked among other WWI classics such as Birdsong and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.
There are lighter moments in the book, and time for romance and friendship, but always against that backdrop of the appalling conditions at the front.
The ending, unfortunately, is problematic and a letdown after the heightened tone of the rest of the book. But that apart this is a novel I can recommend wholeheartedly.
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on 25 March 2014
The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally is probably the most thought provoking book I’ve ever read.

It's not a complicated story; the experiences of Sally and Naomi Durance, who both happen to be nursing sisters as well as siblings and join the nursing Corp in support of the men on the battle fields during the great war of 1914 to 18. Thus it would be easy to say it’s another story, about death that has been done to death, over and over.

That description hasn’t taken Thomas Keneally’s keen insight and rich word-craft skill into account. The writing is poetic and amazing, and the story telling spellbinding. If you read as I do, this book will regularly stop you in your tracks, by some unexpected, implied meaning of a word used, or a phrase. Sometimes it’s the clarity of meaning, other times the multiple meanings and still other times the pure joy to be taken from poetry. I’ll confess; the package was so absorbing and powerful that I read two chapters and decided it was going to take me more than a month, that I didn’t have, to read the book if I kept analysing what was being presented. I solved the problem by borrowing an audio book from the local library and listened, so I couldn’t stop. There hasn’t been a day sinse that I haven’t read from within the book, to refill my mind with something what was written.

If you think you know the correct way to produce a novel for publication, let me explain about The Daughters of Mars. Grammar wise, the book contains no dialog tags at all. It has two endings, for the novel readers, which are not real (in my opinion). There are also several, very valid, conclusions, for the poets, within The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally.

Even the title has several meaning, if you dig. I loved it. Five stars.
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on 18 January 2013
I enjoyed this book but it took a while to get into it. Once the main characters arrived in Egypt I got caught up in it. The book describes the horrors of war in depth and also the conditions the nurses had to endure. However as previous reviewers have mentioned the ending is quite strange. I won't give any details as I don't want to spoil it for others. However I found it rushed, confusing and very unsatisfying. I gave the book 3 stars because of this.
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on 12 March 2016
I finished it but it was a struggle at times moving, as it does,at a glacial pace. I felt it was at least 25 percent too long for the narrative to bear and the very rushed Australian coda after the war finished seemed pointless.
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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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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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