Thomas Keneally's epic tale of women at war

He’s been writing for 50 years but his work is as ambitious as ever. Ahead of his visit to Ireland, Thomas Keneally spoke to Richard Fitzpatrick about his latest novel

Thomas Keneally's epic tale of women at war

THOMAS KENEALLY is not for letting up. The author of the 1982 Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s Ark — which, of course, Steven Spielberg turned into the Oscar-winning movie, Schindler’s List — published his 29th novel last autumn. Fans of the Australian writer will get a chance to see him next week when he visits Ireland as part of the Dublin Writers Festival.

Keneally started writing fiction 50 years ago. In his homeland, he’s officially recognised as “an Australian living treasure”. The Daughters of Mars, his latest novel, is arguably one of his finest. Like much of his work, it’s ambitious in scope, weighing in at over 500 pages, but his artful storytelling makes for a light-fingered journey.

It deals with the Great War, a subject he has tackled before in Gossip from the Forest, which examined the lead-up to the Armistice negotiations. This time, he takes an interesting tack — observing the horror of the First World War’s killing fields from the perspective of two nurses, the Durance sisters, Naomi and Sally. The book is dedicated to a pair of nurses, Judith and Jane, his wife and sister-in-law, and draws from the diaries of an Australian nurse, Sister Elsie Tranter.

Keneally, who spent six years studying to be a priest, met his wife, a former novice nun, while she was nursing his mother in a hospital. They have two daughters. Writing novels, says Keneally, became his “ticket into the world”.

In The Daughters of Mars, Keneally says he was interested in looking at the struggles women had for recognition on the Western Front as well as acknowledging one or two curious phenomena.

“Something that has always amazed Australians is how rich in culture Europe is, and how small the distances over which the battles are fought; for example, Condon, a character in the book says, ‘There’s only 70 miles between the Louvre museum and the body-impregnated trenches of the war.’ Seventy miles is barely a Sunday morning brunch drive in Australia. How can you have this proximity of barbarity and high culture? Also, why do women have this peculiar method for dealing with stress? Women are not good if you miss picking them up by a quarter of an hour or if their daughter’s bedroom is messy, but they’re fantastic at dealing with damage.

“These young women — without any training in shell shock — dealt with a range of human damage day after day, concentrated into the flesh of 17- to 25-year-olds, and that interested me greatly.

“I used my wife as a study. At the time of the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1989, we were making a documentary for Melvyn Bragg and I had been to this war before and I really didn’t want to go back, and my wife insisted on coming with this camera crew and me.

“As I say, if her daughter’s room was untidy, she could become Medusa, but she dealt with what she saw with incredible composure. For example, we encountered a nomad girl who was in a cradle hanging from a camel for a number of days and her legs had been blown off by a Russian grenade. When we met her and when she was lifted down and put on a stretcher I was immediately sick. The soundman was sick, but my wife sat with her through the operation.”

Keneally depicts the fallout of war in eye-popping detail. The sisters begin their war service at Gallipoli in 1915 aboard a hospital ship, and are quickly sinking in dismembered bodies, bodily fluids and spools of intestines, horrors which, improbably, are outdone once they arrive in France at the Somme, where a combination of gas attacks, shell shock and the ravages of the Spanish flu add to the decay.

The battles are conducted off stage, but it doesn’t take from the savagery. Keneally is a master at capturing the madness of war. When, for example, disfigured soldiers keep jumping overboard on their ship home, too embarrassed to meet their family and neighbours with tattered facial flesh, sentries are ordered “to shoot anyone who thought of killing themselves”.

Sally and Naomi live ordinary experiences, too. There is the camaraderie of shared drama at the front, friendships are forged, seven or eight love affairs unfurl and justice is doggedly pursued for the rape of a colleague by a soldier patient. It is an act from the opening chapter — starkly titled ‘Murdering Mrs Durance’, in which the girls’ mother is relieved from a raving, inoperable cancerous state with an overdose of morphine stockpiled by one of the sisters — that drives them apart. They are haunted by guilt. They’re literary vessels, too, of an ethical debate that is getting fiercer a century later.

“It’s a proximate issue for me because I’m 77,” says Keneally of assisted death. “My wife and I both come from the Catholic tradition even though there are many archbishops we hate. We’ve made a living will saying that no exceptional efforts are to be made in keeping us alive. I think it’s a near-run thing between palliative care in institutions and a sort of euthanasia. When things become impossible you just pump people full of morphiates and they slide from this world. My brother, who was a very well-known Catholic doctor in Sydney, went by way of palliative care. I think the idea of ridiculously extending people’s lives artificially is wrong.

“When the pain outweighs any possible dividends from life, it’s then life should end. I’m always thinking as a ruined seminarian. Theologians have to take into account life ends in a different way now than it did 60 years ago. Therefore people can be kept alive that are really dead. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for palliative care.”

nThomas Keneally will be interviewed by Cormac O’Grada as part of the Dublin Writers Festival on May 25. He will discuss Patrick White’s Voss at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin on May 26.See www.dublinwritersfestival.com. He appears at the Arms Hotel, Listowel Writers’ Week, 1.30pm, Saturday, 1 June. See https://writersweek.ie.

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