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16 October 2013

Thomas Keneally: Daughters of Mars

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Remarkable book about remarkable events
This is an epic novel written by a talented novelist about one of the most horrific conflicts in modern history. I have read a lot of novels based on WWI but this one has some of the most searing scenes outside of the battlefield written with totally researched detail and great emotion. Other books look directly at actions of war - this one looks at the consequences of war through the eyes of two sisters from Australia who nurse the wounded off Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

The Durrance sisters, Naomi and Sally, were born in the Macleay Valley of NSW. The eldest, Naomi, leaves home to become a nurse in Sydney while Sally stays home and becomes a nurse at a local hospital. They briefly come together again when their mother is dying of cancer and share a common bond with her death that should bring them together.

At the outbreak of war both sisters enrol as nurses and move from the cosy backwater of rural Australia to Egypt, and to a hospital ship operating off Gallipoli which gets sunk by torpedoes. After surviving the sinking they both move to different medical facilities on the Western Front. There is still no strong bond between the sisters until Naomi suggests that they should become friends. While they become closer as the war continues, Naomi observes later that the war itself becomes "a machine to make us true sisters".

The nursing action encompasses all the destructive elements of modern warfare on the human body, plus the awful damage from different kinds of gas, and shell-shock (not recognised at the time by the medical and military fraternity and labelled "Not Yet Diagnosed") plus the destructive forces of Spanish Flu that kills so many from 1918 onwards.

While nurses of all allied nations are the key players, Keneally introduces us to a couple of memorable characters. Matron Mitchie from Australia, a practical and approachable leader at a time when Matrons' ruled their nurses in a military manner, and Lady Tarlton, the wife of an English aristocrat who has strong Australian connections, who organises her own voluntary hospital on the Western Front using every contact she has in the establishment plus her own money and organising skills to make it happen.

This is historical literary fiction of  the first order. This tale is skilfully written, sometimes with excruciating detail. There are a few warts in the story but not enough to affect my emphatic 5 star rating. At first I found the writing a bit difficult to follow because Keneally mostly uses quotation-less dialogue but I quickly realised that this allowed him to describe action and interaction faster and more easily. Keneally leaves us with a strange literary effect with a double ending which is a bit difficult to grasp.

One of the most remarkable things about this remarkable book is that it was written when Keneally was in his mid 70's.  I am following a number of popular authors much younger than Keneally who have either run out of ideas or their work has run out of steam. He has certainly not run out of steam and I look forward to reading his next book, Shame and the Captives, about WWII POW's held in Australia to be released at the end of October 2013.

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