Sisters mend their grief by nursing the war-wounded

The Daughters of Mars

Thomas Keneally

Sceptre, £18.99, Kindle $16.98

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

Thomas Keneally’s 29th novel is a large, thrilling slab of historical fact and delightfully characterised fiction. A World War I epic that never stints on detail, every action reveals its characters.

Few writers have bettered his explorations of what it means to be Australian, or of how land and circumstance dictate the thoughts and actions of a people.

Now, finally, he has addressed a tragic period of his nation’s short past, and he does so from the female point of view.

Sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, farming innocents left in emotional torment by their mother’s death from an agonising illness, enlist as nurses assisting their nation’s troops in the Great War. Estranged by a terrible, shared secret, they escape in the same direction and are quickly thrown together.

After a brief stop in Egypt, they are plunged into the hell of war, and, from a hospital ship, the Archimedes, attempt to treat the slaughtered and mutilated of the Gallipoli trenches. It is a steep, brutal learning curve, and the author’s attention to detail is roughly equal parts sublime and stomach-churning.

Then, following a moment of brilliantly depicted cataclysm, they are transferred to the western front, where, at the Somme and Ypres, even greater horrors await.

Even though the facts and figures are familiar to us all, the details still shock. War stories are typically told from inside the pulse of battle, but this novel’s perspective is from those left to pick up the shattered pieces and listen to the screams long after the guns have ceased firing, and it offers new and heightened revelations.

These moments of thoroughgoing horror juxtapose sharply with the good things in life that somehow continue unabated, those swathes of peace that allow the beauty and artfulness of the world to shine through. Away from the trenches and the mustard air lies the splendour of the Pyramids or a train journey to Paris, or the small, precious kindnesses of love.

For close to half a century, Keneally has not only stood as one of the pillars of Australian literature, but, in world terms, must feature among the major novelists of his generation. He has won most honours his country can bestow and has made the shortlist for the Booker Prize on four occasions, winning in 1982 for one of the decade’s most important literary ventures, Shindler’s Ark, a highly acclaimed novel that, with a slight, Americanised title adjustment, would go on to the silver screen and Oscar glory.

The Daughters of Mars is a big and well-researched novel, which, through plain, concise prose, gives the impression of having been written at high speed.

The sentences here are not crafted to the point of poetry, but this is in no way to the detriment of the work, because what matters, at all times, is the story being told and the truths it helps uncover. Thirty years on from the crowning achievement of his career, this author remains a voice worth hearing.


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