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Non-Fiction November: perfect couples


For Nonfiction November this week we’re looking at pairing up a work of fiction with a work of non fiction.

I’m feeling generous this week (it’s probably all those endorphins floating around after my session in the gym this morning) so am going to offer you not one, but two pairings. In a week that we will mark the end of one of the worst conflicts in history, I thought it was fitting that both are on the theme of war.

Couple #1: World War 1

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks follows two characters who live at different times. One is Stephen Wraysford, a British soldier on the front line in Amiens during the First World War.  The other is his granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, who more than fifty years later discovers his journals from World War I and seeks to learns about his experiences at Marne, Verdun and the Somme.

Faulks said that he wrote the novel partly because he felt that the First World War had not been discussed enough in both literary and historical contexts.

I’m not sure whether he thinks that has now changed. We’ve certainly seen “The Great War” feature more prominently in the UK school curriculum in the last few years and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this weekend is appropriately being marked around the country.

Unfortunately so many of the people who returned from that conflict are no longer with us to share their memories and experiences. We do however have the archives of the Imperial War Museum who recorded thousands of soldiers, the families they left behind and people who survived the war. The results are available in The Forgotten Voices series of books. The one I read, the Forgotten Voices of the Great War contained some tremendously moving testimonies that helped me appreciate what my great grandfather experienced ( he was one of the lucky ones who returned home to his family). Highly recommended reading if you have anyone in your family who served in the war or even if you didn’t but want to understand more about the war that was meant to end all wars.

 Couple #2: World War 2 


Oskar Schindler saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2. His actions were brought to public attention through the book Schindler’s List (sold as Schindler’s Ark outside the United States) by Keneally. The book, which Keneally labelled a novel, won him the Booker Prize in 1982. The film version directed by Steven Spielberg, won seven Academy Awards.

But none of this would have happened it it had not been for chance encounter in Beverley Hills, Los Angeles between Keneally and Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. Pfefferberg had tried for years to interest writers and film makers about the story of Schindler but it was only when Thomas Keneally walked into his shop that he got the response he wanted.

The story of that meeting and the visits the two men made to Poland, to talk to people whose lives Schindler saved, are recorded in Searching for Schindler.  It’s worth reading this to understand some of the challenges Keneally encountered when he came to write his novel and the even bigger challenge of creating the film script. Here’s my review.



Searching for Schindler by Thomas Keneally

Searching for SchindlerBut for serendipity, the world may never have heard the remarkable true-life story of Oskar Schindler, the man who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2.

It would never have become a novel that went on to win the Booker Prize for Thomas Keneally in 1982.

It would never have become an Oscar-winning film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993.

The fates however determined that one evening in 1980, the Australian author Thomas Keneally would walk into the leather goods shop in Beverley Hills in search of a replacement briefcase. Discovering that his customer was an author, the elderly, very talkative and inquisitive Polish proprietor pitched him a story he said the world needed to hear.

In Searching for Oskar, Keneally looks back at the unusual genesis for his award-winning novel and his many subsequent meetings with Leopold Poldek. Poldek owed his life and that of his wife to Schindler. In gratitude he wanted the world to know how Schindler had risked his own life to protect many Jews from concentration camps and certain death.

In essence this is a memoir of how Schindler’s Ark came to be written, the battle with the publishers over their preferred title for the American edition (it came out as Schindler’s List in America only), Keneally’s struggle to write the screen play (Spielberg eventually gave the job to someone else) and the long gap before the film version got into production.

For much of the early section of the book he traces the steps he and Leopold took together to track down some of those survivors and capture their stories. There were times when this threatened to become a dull list of names and places but fortunately Poldek is such a remarkable individual that whenever he is present, the book comes alive. Keneally is more than once mortified by the behaviour of his travelling companion but is also charmed by him. On one trip to Warsaw (still part of a Soviet state) Keneally is terrified that Poldek’s insistence he change his currency on the black market will land him behind bars. Another time he waits in acute embarrassment when Poldek remonstrates with a hotel clerk that had the temerity to charge them for photocopying (the bill seemed to be less than $5).

The Independent newspaper in the UK was less than flattering about Searching for Oskar, implying that it was written because Keneally wanted to cash in on the success of Schindler’s Ark. The reviewer calls it ‘tedious’, ‘banal’, ‘cliched’ and ‘clumsy’, a book in fact that should never have been published.

I think that’s too harsh a critique. Searching for Oskar does have its faults – for example, Keneally dwells far too much on some famine relief trips he made to Ethiopia while waiting for Speilberg to begin filming, These sections felt as if he was just padding out of the book. But I did find some other insights interesting – like the issue of whether in writing Schindler’s Ark he was producing a work of fiction or a biography – and some of the insights into Schindler’s character that were not captured in the novel or film. I finished reading Keneally’s memoir with a huge admiration for the determination shown by Poldek in ensuring the story came to public attention and Schindler got the credit he deserved.


Thomas Keneally and The Daughters of Mars

I see that The Times critic considered The Daughters of Mars “unmissable, unforgettable” while The Spectator considered this to be possibly Thomas Keneally’s best novel. Sorry guys but the words “overblown” and “baggy” come more to my mind as I think about my experience of reading this saga of a pair of Australian sisters who serve as nurses on the battlefields of World War 1.

daughtersofmarsThe novel begins in a rural farming community in New South Wales where the Durrance sisters Sally and Naomi  mourn their mother’s death from cancer. Shortly after they  answer their country’s call for volunteer medical staff to come to the aid of soldiers thousands of miles away in Europe. The pair kick their heels for a while in Alexandria, their first experience of the world outside Australia. These opening chapters failed to engage my attention in any meaningful way and it wasn’t until they were posted to the Archimedes, a hospital ship receiving the freshly mutilated from the 1915 Dardanelles campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula, that the book really began to take off.

Keneally memorably portrays the chaos of the floating operating theatre and the stress and exhaustion felt by young women called upon to make rapid judgements of who gets treated, who has to be left to die. The technical detail is often gruesome. At one point Sally removes a bandage to discover “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 amidst blood, lacy and frayed, hanging out of the slashed gut”.  At another point, one of the nurses is confronted by a patient “whose wound once unbandaged showed a face that was half steak, and no eyes. The lack of features made his age impossible to guess.” Keneally never holds back from the realism of the injuries sustained and the often inadequate treatment options available to the dedicated medical staff as they face new forms of warfare. The star of this section of the novel is however the set piece of the torpedoing of the Archimedes. As the sisters  cling to rafts awaiting rescue, around them the night is filled with the sound of men and animals screaming for help. “… huge metal shrieks and thumps could be heard within the ship and the unearthly lament of mules and ponies went on”  Later on

…a horse with bulging eyes came swimming up, the sort they might use to pull cannon. It floundered and wallowed … It laboured away and turned to give them one last flash of a panicked, unexpectant eye. Its neck sank and the nostrils tried to hold their place above the sea. It reached a point where its hindquarters began to drag it down backwards. so it went under, whinnying until chocked off.

We’re not even half way through the novel at this point. More blood, disease and drama awaits as the sisters join another theatre of war – the Western Front. From then on, as we trace them through a series of medical staging posts and clearing stations in Normandy and the Somme, that I began to feel the novel’s ability to hold my attention waning rapidly amid the mountain of gangrene, sepsis, amputated limbs, shell shock and gas attacks and the ever widening list of characters.  Compounding the problem was that Keneally seemed to have too many themes going on, too many points he wanted to make. Many times he addresses the issue of courage and the conflict of emotions: the relief at saving a solider followed swiftly by the realisation this is simply a means to  sending him back to the front. Other themes deal with the lack of respect towards the nurses from both orderlies and superiors, who treat them as inferior to the real combatants even though they too come under fire from the enemy. Then of course we get the inevitable critique of the political and military establishment without which it seems no World War 1 novel can be complete.

At times this was a rambling story held together by the evolution of Naomi and Sally Durrance’s reactions and ability to adapt to everything that is thrown at them.  They discover strengths and skills they never realised they possessed, proving resolute and heroic in the face of adversity. What a pity Keneally decides they also have to discover love. Instead of the grand overwhelming passion that would feel more true to their natures, he has them rush around the country to hold hands in cafes and visit museums. Those scenes not only struck a false note they felt superfluous.

Overall, this was an OK reading experience. Extremely evocative in parts and refreshing in dealing with an aspect of World War 1  I knew little about (the role of the Australians). But I would have appreciated it more if Keneally hadn’t tried to over-egg the novel quite so much.

End Notes

Daughters of Mars was published in 2012. It was in the running for several prizes including the  International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award but wasn’t a winner ultimately.


Hello again

I’m back home in the comfort of my own bed after three weeks on the other side of the Atlantic. I’d thought I would have plenty of time while away to catch up on all the blogs I follow as well as make a dent in my review backlog. It was not to be.

By the time I got back to my hotel at the end of the day all I felt capable of doing was watching series one of Call the Midwife and some rather uninspiring episodes of Poirot with David Suchet in the lead role. I didn’t even read as much as I expected: Richard Flanagan’s Booker winning A Narrow Road to the Deep North (superb); Denis Thierault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman (quirky) and half of The Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally’s epic of Australian nurses in World War One.

Despite the feelings of exhaustion I did it seem have enough reserves of energy to go book shopping. In an outlet store I picked up three bargains –  all works by Penelope Lively to add to my collection (don’t ask me what they were because I forgot to note them before I shipped them back home). On a second expedition I bought André Brink’s classic novel, A Dry White Season, which is a hard hitting book about racial intolerance  and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’ve seen the film adaptation a few times but only recently heard a podcast discussion which suggested the book has more of an edge than the movie.

I’d thought to buy a lot more but the price of books appears to have shot up in America in recent years. It seemed ridiculous to pay sixteen dollars (minus tax) for a fairly slim paperback that I could get for around three quarters of that price back home. Anyone know why the American editions are so much more expensive?

So now I’m back and having caught up on some sleep am ready to catch up on the hundreds of blog posts I missed… Stand by for lots of commenting.

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