The Daughters of Mars

Author Tom Keneally.THE DAUGHTERS OF MARSTom KeneallyVintage, $32.95
Nanjing Night Net

Everywhere I look there are novels about war – perhaps because it is so dangerous, because it makes life more urgent. There are rich opportunities for moral dilemmas, but detailed battle scenes and descriptions of artillery leave me cold.

Tom Keneally’s latest novel, set during World War I, stands out from the throng because it is not about the heroics of war but the immediate aftermath. It is about the bloody result and the people who are responsible for cleaning it up.

Sally and Naomi Durance are sisters who grew up on a family dairy farm in the Macleay Valley. Their mother has just died of cancer – aided by a mercy dose of morphine from one of the sisters – and the women use the war as an excuse to join up as nurses for the Australian cause.

The Durance sisters are shipped to Egypt and end up on the Red Cross hospital ship Archimedes, stationed in the Dardanelles. None of the nurses has any idea what they are in for – there is no way to be prepared for the aftermath of violence when it hits. The young men ripped to pieces with shrapnel, the stench of their rotting wounds, the horror of it. From the perspective of Sally, we smell the ”meaty smell of wounds … with the sharpness of carbolic”; we see a young soldier with ”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 amid blood, lacy and frayed, hanging out of the slashed gut”.

Keneally studied the journals of Australian nursing sisters to write The Daughters of Mars, and there is immediacy and detail here as well as attention to the friendships and petty arguments between nurses. Naomi and Sally’s relationship is that of many sisters – complex and rife with past grievances and shared history. Sally still feels immense guilt over her mother’s quickened death – she was the one who stocked the extra morphine – and avoids Naomi because she feels the two of them are complicit.

But amid all the violence and horror that surrounds them, it seems odd that Sally is still so racked with guilt. The man she meets and wishes to marry eventually says to her: ”You were a merciful daughter, for god’s sake.” Here I chimed in: ”Yes! Get over it!”

After the Dardanelles, both sisters are sent to northern Europe – Naomi ends up in the Australian Voluntary Hospital and Sally in a casualty clearing station. They both meet men, and circumstances naturally intensify these relationships. As Naomi’s fellow, Kiernan, tells her: ”It is quite a changed world indeed … in which women have the courage to say what must be said.”

One of the striking things about The Daughters of Mars is how Keneally captures both the vastness of the war and the small detail of it. We discover how wide-reaching it was, how deeply it affected the consciousness of a generation, yet we also discover how gas wreaks havoc on a soldier’s lungs, how quickly a wound can go septic and what a dysentery ward smells like in the heat of summer.

With such an investment – so much blood and suffering, so many severed limbs – the end of the novel is disappointing. . The story moves back to postwar Australia, but presents an indecisive ending that reads like a choose-your-own-adventure. The conclusion does not fit with the rest of the novel and it takes some its emotional heft away. That said, The Daughters of Mars is still a fresh perspective on a much-written-about period in history.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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