Few novelists can have as close a relationship with history as Thomas Keneally. Whether producing a ‘non-fiction novel’’ such as his Booker Prize-winning Schindler’sArk or writing popular histories that read like novels such as The Great Shame, Keneally never lets the story get in the way of a good truth. History again offers a grand occasion in and for Keneally’s latest book, which is his 29th novel not counting the two books, both historical fictions, set in World War II that were published under the pseudonym William Coyle
The Daughters of Mars tells the story, in epic dimension, of two Australian sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, who grew up on a family dairy farm in the Macleay Valley. Their mother has just died of cancer - aided by a mercy dose of morphine from one of the sisters - and the women use the war as an excuse to join up as nurses for the Australian cause
The sisters are shipped to Egypt and end up on the Red Cross hospital ship Archimedes, stationed in the Dardanelles. None of the nurses has any idea what they are in for - there is no way to be prepared for the aftermath of violence when it hits. The young men ripped to pieces with shrapnel, the stench of their rotting wounds, the horror of it. From the perspective of Sally, we smell the ”meaty smell of wounds … with the sharpness of carbolic”; we see a young soldier with ”a cavity created by something larger than a bullet - a shard of shrapnel, say - and edging from it an unexpected snake of the stomach lining named omentum, yellow amid blood, lacy and frayed, hanging out of the slashed gut”
Keneally studied the journals of Australian nursing sisters to write The Daughters of Mars, and there is immediacy and detail here as well as attention to the friendships and petty arguments between nurses. Naomi and Sally’s relationship is like that of many sisters - complex and rife with past grievances and shared history. Sally still feels immense guilt over her mother’s quickened death - she was the one who stocked the extra morphine - and avoids Naomi because she feels the two of them are complicit
One of the most vivid passages in the novel occurs when the Archimedes is torpedoed and sinks. The incident is deftly filtered through the necessarily limited consciousness of people numbed by the impact and not yet fully aware of what is happening: ”Sally felt an abstract and intense curiosity on what would happen next and they all seemed averse to any rush. They walked in good order back to the companionway that would take them to the deck. On the way Naomi approached Sally and disapproved of the way her belt was tied. A double loop, I think, she said as she adjusted the belt with strange cheeriness”
Then they’re transferred to the western front, where, at the Somme and Ypres, even greater horrors await. Naomi ends up in the Australian Voluntary Hospital and Sally in a casualty clearing station. They both meet men, and circumstances naturally intensify these relationships. As Naomi’s fellow, Kiernan, tells her: ”It is quite a changed world indeed … in which women have the courage to say what must be said”
One of the striking things about The Daughters of Mars is how Keneally captures both the vastness of the war and the small detail of it. We discover how wide-reaching it was, how deeply it affected the consciousness of a generation, yet we also discover how gas wreaks havoc on a soldier’s lungs, how quickly a wound can go septic and what a dysentery ward smells like in the heat of summer
Even though the facts and figures are familiar to us all, the details still shock. War stories are typically told from inside the pulse of battle, but this novel’s perspective is from those left to pick up the shattered pieces and listen to the screams long after the guns have ceased firing, and it offers new and heightened revelations
These moments of thoroughgoing horror juxtapose sharply with the good things in life that somehow continue unabated, those swathes of peace that allow the beauty and artfulness of the world to shine through. Away from the trenches and the mustard air lies the splendour of the Pyramids or a train journey to Paris, or the small, precious kindnesses of love
For close to half a century, Keneally has not only stood as one of the pillars of Australian literature, but, in world terms, must feature among the major novelists of his generation. He has won most honours his country can bestow and has made the shortlist for the Booker Prize on four occasions, winning in 1982 for one of the decade’s most important literary ventures, Shindler’s Ark, a highly acclaimed novel that, with a slight, Americanised title adjustment, would go on to the silver screen and Oscar glory
Not surprising in the work of such a prolific, accomplished and successful novelist, Keneally’s prose is smooth and uncluttered. He deploys minimal punctuation with none of the dialogue encased in quotation marks. That near absence of punctuation lends to the prose a sense of meditative flow, almost as if the narrative was being communicated by author to reader telepathically
The Daughters of Mars runs to nearly 600 pages, though Keneally is not about to waste words. One chapter opens like this: ”A Melbourne late summer day. The desert that killed Burke and Wills is breathing on the city. The air moved as fiercely as anything Naomi had known in Egypt”
Keneally’s command of the craft of historical fiction is such that he makes what he does seem just about effortless
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