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Review: The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally
Atria, 2012. 513 pp. $26.

“Fortune favors the brave,” wrote Virgil, a saying that describes both Thomas Keneally’s approach to this extraordinary tale and its two protagonists. Naomi and Sally Durance hail from Australian cattle country and a home where domestic duties wore their mother down before her excruciating death from cancer. Determined to pursue a different, more independent path, few of which exist for women in 1915, as trained nurses, they volunteer to serve the Australian forces in the Great War.

But despite what they have in common, Naomi and Sally have never been close, so they sail overseas with much left unsaid. And the elephant neither of them speaks about–a rather hefty creature, in this case–is that both sisters hoarded enough morphine to grant their mother her final wish, to die with no further suffering. What happened, exactly? Sally isn’t sure, and Naomi, who was there at the last, may or may not have told the truth.

Recruiting poster for Australian nurses, Sydney. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; from the Library of Congress )

Recruiting poster for Australian nurses, Sydney. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; from the Library of Congress )

From this premise comes a riveting story that spares nothing and no one and grabs you until the last sentences. It’s not just the hospital or dressing-station scenes at Gallipoli and northern France, conveyed with unflinching realism, or the grotesque blasphemies that steel, gas, and flame inflict on human flesh. It’s the fear that grips the nurses, which they can’t help breathing in, like the fetid odors of the wards: Be careful what attachments you form, because nobody’s safe.

How the Durance sisters cope with this terror frames the novel, especially given their sibling rivalry and mother’s death, an irony that they face daily in their work as healers. Their relationship matters more than any other, even when they allow men into their lives. There are flirtations and romances between many nurses and soldiers–how could there not be?–but the author takes care to give the women conversations and desires that have nothing to do with men.

I’d have liked even more of that, but I think Keneally does well. He goes even further, portraying the nurses’ struggles in which love or justice don’t necessarily triumph. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but Keneally is too good a novelist and historian to offer the reader cheap candy. That’s why I was disappointed at how often he tells the reader what the characters feel, rather than show it. The clumsiest instances involve his reminders, early on, that Sally hasn’t forgotten her guilt about her mother’s death–as though she would, or anyone would assume so.

The heavy hand also blunts the way British officers treat Australians, which was no doubt shabby in reality, but tiresome here nevertheless. Every British commander in this novel seems criminally negligent, while the Aussies just do things better. Strangely, too, despite the realism Keneally insists on, the Durance sisters somehow have no trouble finding good food and drink on days off spent in hungry, ruined French towns.

Naomi’s character puzzled me, sometimes. She seems downright cold, for no apparent reason I can figure from her upbringing. Is this a simplistic authorial device with which she can keep the world (read: men) at a distance? If so, a woman of her intelligence and aplomb could have achieved the same result with subtle sexual diplomacy. To me, that would have made her more complete and believable, refining what’s already a compelling book.

If you’ve never read a novel about the First World War–or even if you have–The Daughters of Mars is faithful to the events and passions of the time, a human, moving story. For that, I recommend it.