Book review: The Daughters of Mars; Thomas Keneally

Private Burke signs his autograph for a nurse at Rose Hall, Sydney
Private Burke signs his autograph for a nurse at Rose Hall, Sydney
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A dispassionate yet moving tale of how Australian nurses fought the Great War.

The Daughters of Mars

by Thomas Keneally

Sceptre, 528pp, £18.99

The carnage produced by the battles of the First World War was so horrific that often those who tended to the wounded and the dying are forgotten. There are monuments in towns and villages nationwide to the men who fell fighting, but the names of the women who cared for them are absent. Yet nurses at the Front got wounded, too, and they died. The most famous of them, Edith Cavell, was tried and shot by the Germans, and her fate reminds us of the danger nurses faced almost daily.

In his latest novel, Thomas Keneally turns his novelistic eye to the fates of two Australian sisters, both nurses, and who both join the nursing corps when the call goes out. For Naomi, who has already escaped her parents’ small farm in the country for the appeal of the big city, it is simply the right thing to do and something she is capable of doing. For her younger sister, Sally, left behind when the more confident and dazzling Naomi departed, it is her chance to break out, too. Their mother is dead after a painful fight with cancer and Sally is riven with guilt over the manner of her death. The syringe she’d kept full of morphine, in case the pain got too much for her mother and she needed a final release, is empty when Naomi, on a short visit home, wakes up Sally to tell her that their mother is dead.

They are the murdering sisters, then, in Sally’s mind, and she has expiation to make. What starts out as an adventure, albeit a serious one, quickly changes, when their hospital ship, the Archimedes, is hit off the island of Lemnos as they approach the killing fields of Gallipoli and sinks. Trapped in the water for hours, with many slowly drowning, the nurses, whose superficial camaraderie is about to change into something else, find new strength and a calmness in numbers. Their much admired matron loses a limb whilst one nurse is saved by a horse that buoys her up through the water before drowning itself. Naomi urges delusional soldiers not to swim away; Sally fights to stay alive in the freezing water.

What Keneally is showing with this moment is not only the courage of the nurses who came under fire as much as the soldiers, but how the women react differently from the men. Again and again, he compares the response of the two sexes to fear and danger, showing how the women are steady, at times even calm, in the face of imminent death. When another nurse, Freud, is raped at their new station, the women band together once again to bring her attacker to justice – with an uncomfortable touch of realism, though, Keneally has the violated nurse shipped out to Alexandria and she is forgotten by the friends who once stood up for her, but who fail to keep in touch.

When they meet again much later, Freud reminds them bitterly of their abandonment. Has war hardened the women too?

It would be astonishing if it hadn’t, but both sisters not only find love, for Naomi in the arms of a Quaker military doctor who will later be imprisoned for his refusal to bear arms, and for Sally in the shape of a younger man from her home town.

They also find ways to forgive one another for their mother’s death, for abandoning their father on his homestead, for once resenting each other. Naomi helps to run a hospital set up by the aristocratic Lady Tarlton, who once ran field hospitals in Australia, and Sally tends to those wounded in the Dardanelles and on the Western Front.

Keneally’s prose has always lacked a poetic touch; you will search in vain for metaphors and similes here. As with many of his historical novels based on real events, like Schindler’s Ark, he brings more of a journalistic element to his writing style, a sense of reportage that helps to keep emotion at bay and privileges objectivity. In this particular novel though, that kind of style has been shot through with other things, to give us a curious mix of what can only be described as dispassionately personal. It is as though these women are recording their most intimate diary entries, but from the point of view of war reporters (which, in some sense, is what they are). This mix could have resulted in a cold and unfeeling novel. Instead, it works quite superbly. This is a truly challenging read, of the best, most unshowy kind, every sentence making use of every word, depth given to the feelings and thoughts of its principle characters without recall to hysteria, without loss of control.

And it’s meant to be challenging – there are serious themes here, not just about loss and death, but about fighting and humanity. Running through the novel are references to the ancient gods and their games, as Keneally pays homage to the mythical nature of battle, not to glorify war but to remind us that what these nurses do is every bit as important as their soldier counterparts. He gives their work majesty even while he shows it in all its horror, making his nurses both human and somehow, more than human. It will be a cynical and hard eye that does not shed a tear at the end, however, no matter how precise and objective the prose.