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)

November 1916, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Interim comment. I write these words after reaching page 350 of this 1,000-page novel that was completed in 1984 but not published until 1993, in Russia. And my preliminary conclusion is that Solzehnitsyn is no longer novelist; he is an historian. He is not writing about the personal lives of people. He is writing about people discussing and reacting to historical moments. Yes, the people are well drawn, but they have no emotional lives.

The purpose of this work appears to be to portray the incompetence of the Russian army, the Russian government, and the Czar. To make inevitable the Revolution that is to come. It is as if after his Gulag series Solzhenitsyn is no longer comfortable in creating fiction. For fiction exists for its own sake, creating real characters in a real world, whereas this author has a message to convey to his readers: that the Russians saw the leaderless plight their county was in, took no action, and so brought on the Revolution themselves.

I have now finished this novel, which Solzhenitsyn calls Knot II of The Red Wheel. And my reaction has not changed. This work is an interpretation of history in the form of a novel. In the form of a novel, but not a novel itself. If there is a main fictional character, it is Colonel Vorotynstev, whom we follow in perhaps 25 percent of the book. But of that percent, only about half is concerned with his personal life. In that half, he become disillusioned with his wife Alina and then fascinated by the seductive Olga. It is a routine triangle of a disappointed husband and another woman, which does remind some of Tolstoy.

But this work is no War and Peace, much less an Anna Karenina. Whereas Tolstoy told us a personal story of how his characters lived in and were affected by war, there is no impact of the war—or the budding revolution—on these personal lives. Instead, Vorotynstev spends the other half of his time discussing the inept conduct of the war with his fellow soldiers, with friends, even, in fact, with Olga.

Vorotynstev is portrayed as a sensible and practical colonel, who, aside from his personal intrigue, is concerned about the conduct of the war. He sees the inevitable failure to come, and is concerned about the survival of the Russia he knows. We follow him as he joins a movement to find the right military leadership for the army. And, like some, he concludes that the only answer is for Russia to get out of the war. That that is the only way this incompetent country can survive. And, of course, no one is persuaded to act. Whereas the reader, of course, knows the tragic result of this inaction, the triumph of Lenin and his revolutionaries, and the changing of history.

In the remaining 75 percent of this work, we are basically overhearing political discussions by soldiers based in the capital, St. Petersburg, and (less so) by civilians on the homefront and in Zurich. Of course, Solzhenitsyn is skilled enough to make these conversations believable and effective. In fact, he usually sets them up with well-drawn portraits of the characters and their environment.

But these novelistic skills for me go to waste, because the author is interested only in history, and his version of history, meaning the ineptitude of the Russian government and the political maneuvering of the many characters opposed to the government.

In fact, in his Author’s Note, he tries to cajole the reader into reading what he terms “the historical matter” that he spreads throughout the work—frequently in small print, as if to make its historical excerpts more official. But after my first exposure, I skipped these historical matters. And, indeed, I skipped through much more. For example, the long section on Lenin in Zurich, much of which was earlier published as a complete book. For example, the lengthy section in which we enter the royal palace and then the mind of both the Emperor Nicholas and his wife, the Empress Alexandra. Solzhenitsyn seems particularly intent on using them to portray for us the impact of Rasputin, often called Grigori.

Finally, this work has a completely novelistic ending that is difficult to evaluate. It is highly effective, as we follow a woman, Zina, who has been seduced and abandoned by her married lover Fydor (whom we have met earlier in the company of Vorotynstev). She has lost her mother and her young child, she believes, because she has abandoned them for her lover. She enters a church and confesses her sins, and finds as a result a certain peace. But is the scene’s inconclusivness intended to represent the historic inconclusiveness of the entire novel?

This appears to be the conservative Solzhenitsyn stressing his rightist roots. For he has spent much of this work exposing the selfishness and manipulations of the leftists, along with the government’s ineptitude. This ranges from the plotting of Lenin to the Empress’ foolish belief in Rasputin.

Nothing dramatic occurs in historic terms in this work, unlike Knot I, which revolved around the initial invasion by the Germans. Here, all is political talk and political maneuvering, either by the revolutionaries, the government, or the military hierarchy. Which leaves the reader without any narrative interest, or any emotional interest (except for the two triangular affairs that have no impact on the historic substance of the work).

It appears that Solzhenitsyn is now a moralist at heart. He started out as a true novelist with Cancer Ward, etc. But then he moved to the Gulag series, and he has not been a novelist since. What he has tried to do here is use his novelistic skills to create reader interest in his historical theorizing. But I skipped his historical sections because I was interested in reading a novel, not in reading about history. Of course, one must marvel at the research that went into this work, a work written when Russia was still under the Soviets and, later, when the author was in exile in Vermont.

In the Times, both Bernstein and Bayley praise this book. Both say that Solzhenitsyn has caught the tenor of the World War I times in Russia. However, I notice that Bayley acknowledges my reaction to the work. He says that the author himself “knows that human beings interest him more as social phenomena than as unique and individual creatures.” And at the risk of sounding too much a traditionalist, I would ask, what is the purpose of a novel? Is it to involve the reader with a person (or persons) or is it to involve him in understanding history?

Bayley points out that the (historic) detail of this work reveals that the fate of Russia that we know today was not inevitable, that it resulted from the detailed (in)activity that this work portrays. And he has a point. But I would ask whether this point should apply to a work of history or to a work of fiction. We are obviously in separate camps. Is my camp so old-fashioned? That I want to be the fly on he wall of a bedroom rather than of an imperial palace.

My reaction to both Bernstein and Bayley is that they have reviewed the work that Solzhenitsyn wanted to write. And to me they have rationalized their interpretation of this work. They evaluate the author’s intentions more than his achievement. They compare him to Tolstoy: (Bernstein) “ambitious, panoramic yet intimate, prodigiously researched, invested with a strong sense of verisimilitude.” And compare Vorotynstev to (Bayley) “heroes who will never resolve their problems or escape the confrontations that in the Russian novel constitute the true livingness of life.”

But, as I see it, this “livingness” in fiction should concern one’s personal life, not the historic environment in which the characters live. Much like Solzhenitsyn, who in his personal life is more politically conservative, revealing it here in his critique of the leftist machinations, I find myself conservative in my appreciation of literature. So will I be left behind, like the Russians of 1916 were? Or will I emerge, like the Russia of 1990, as a true interpreter of our literary heritage?

Bernstein writes that, given our knowledge today, the “story has a piquancy that can come only from watching people marching toward a tragedy that they could avoid if only they knew what we know.” On the level of history this is true, but it is not on the level of the human beings we meet. Vorotyntsev’s emotional distraction between two women certainly cannot stand in for the nation’s political divide.

My own rewriting would give 75 percent to that emotional conundrum and 25 percent to the political environment. But I am not Solzhenitsyn, and I have certainly not experienced what he did. I believe, however, that fiction should be ruled by the heart, not by the intellect. He is a great man and a great writer, but here he has traded fiction for history. And the loss is literature’s. And ours. (January 2013)