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.
The 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.
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.