The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally

Keneally is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and this 2012 novel is one of his best. It offers a broad historic canvas, and through the experiences of two nurses it explores the blend of pain, dedication, and heroism triggered by war, in this case World War I.

The nurses are volunteer Australian nurses, Sally and Naomi Durance, who in 1915 are sent off to Europe to treat wounded soldiers on hospital ships and in hospital tents. And they quickly learn the harrowing effect of war on men’s lives, a major point of this novel. But first we get to know the nurses themselves. Naomi is more aggressive, Sally, whom we get closer to, less so. Prior to the war, Sally has stayed home to nurse, while Naomi has gone to the big city to serve its more prestigious doctors.

The two sisters are united, most strongly, by a single incident that troubles Sally, their having collaborated in the mercy killing of their mother who was suffering unmercifully as she neared death. And while they do not regret her death, they do have a guilty conscience about their plotting—and this has separated them. For whenever they are close, it forces them to acknowledge what they planned together.

Two amazing scenes enliven the first 150 pages. The first is on a hospital ship, as its nurses and doctors receive the first wave of horribly injured soldiers from the battlefields at Gallipoli. The second is the torpedoing of a converted troopship, and its dramatic sinking while soldiers and nurses cling to drifting lifeboats. But as the two scenes convey the horror of war, this shared experience by Sally and Naomi also brings the sisters closer together.

After Sally and Naomi reconcile, they are separated by the vagaries of war when Naomi breaks discipline and is sent back to Australia. This, however, allows Keneally to broaden his canvas, to include more of the home front as well as more seaboard life. When they eventually rejoin, it is in France.

Something interesting happens in the center section of this novel. We move back and forth between Sally and Naomi as they become nurses in France and move closer to the front. But in dramatic tension, in the movement of the plot, nothing really happens. Each gets closer to a man, each becomes gradually aware that a new satisfaction may come from such a relationship. But nothing happens that makes the reader ask what these characters will do next. And yet, this section of the novel is continually fascinating—a tribute, I think, to the skill of this novelist. One reason is that Keneally brings to life the details of that era, along with the uncertainty of warfare and the physical pain that engulfs the nursing stations.

As Sally and Naomi develop their relationships with two men, however, the reader does wonder whether they will find happiness with these two figures at the end of the novel. Because this is a serious work of literature, and given that men are being maimed and killed all along the battlefront, the fate of these lovers is uncertain. It also becomes morally complex when Keneally raises a matter of conscience, and of justice. For Naomi’s lover, Ian, is imprisoned after he has volunteered as a Quaker to serve in a medical unit to save men, but then refuses an order to take up a rifle and kill men.

One problem I had was differentiating among the various nurses. Each has her own characteristics, but they do not sufficiently motivate their actions. And so I found it difficult to separate them whenever they reappeared on the scene. Perhaps they would have been better individualized if they had interacted more, influencing each other, especially Sally and Naomi. Matron Mitchie stands out because she did exactly that, as well as because of the injury she suffers.

The same difficulty applies to the doctors and soldiers with whom the nurses form attachments. They exist primarily in their relationship to a particular nurse, a nurse whose own existence is not separate enough from her fellow nurses.

Just before the ending, Keneally hints at how he will handle the fate of the two sisters. The issue is the fate of their mother as she suffered her excruciating death. And Keneally does not tell us the cause of that death. Was it a natural death, or a mercy killing? And which of the sisters is telling the truth? The lack of a clear answer hints at what is to come.

Then we do come to that ending. Shades of the French lieutenant. There are two endings. We have a choice. Who will live and who will die? The author appears to leave it to the reader. Did he want to have his literary cake and eat it, too? I cannot decide. Both endings are beautifully written. And one wants to be convinced by both. But is Keneally being fair? Is this even a matter or artistic integrity? Bottomline, it is as if Keneally has decided that a major character must die if his novel is to have literary stature, but he cannot decide who it is to be.

Overall, this is a marvelous novel. It is a portrait of two sisters, primarily, but it is also a portrait of war and even more of the nursing profession in war. One lives with these characters off the shores of Gallipoli, then in lifeboats plunging with the sea, and finally moving back and forth through the mud and poppy fields of France.

And yet what one remembers here are not the individual nurses, except Sally and Naomi. What one remembers are the nurses’ loyalty to their profession, as they physically lift and carry these soldiers, wash and bandage their wounds, fed them or inject morphine, cheer them with talk or watch over them in sleep. It is indeed a marvelous achievement to put the reader in the casualty wards of this suffering and recuperating army so far from home.

Indeed, one should note that this war is vividly created without one battle scene. The war is made real by its wounded and its dead. And one may surely argue that this justifies the significance of this novel. That while it lives through the adventures of the two sisters, its literary stature emerges from its exposure of the sufferings of innocent youth.

Keneally was 77 when he published this novel. May he continue to explore our humanity within the sufferings that life brings. (September, 2015)

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