The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

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The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: World War I experiences of the Australian, Durance sisters who volunteer for nursing duties in far off Europe. Expertly researched story, full of compassion and human spirit, this is a fitting tribute to the brave volunteers - and with an ending that you will want to talk about with other readers.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: October 2012
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 9780340951873

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Expectations ahead of Thomas Keneally's The Daughters of Mars are understandably high. He regularly features on the Booker shortlist and has won the prize in the past with Shindler's Ark. While his subject matter, World War I, is hardly the most original, his slant on the story is, and this is a book that deserves to sit with the very best of the many books on that subject, including All Quiet on the Western Front and Birdsong. It's that good and that powerful.

Keneally's approach to the story is to tell it from the point of view of two Australian sisters who volunteer for nursing duties. From a rural background both girls are getting over the death of their mother about which they may or may not have cause to feel guilt. Before the war, they are not close. Sally, the younger sister and the main focus of much of the book, stayed at home to nurse her mother while her elder sister Naomi left to work in the bright lights of the city. The death of their mother if anything forces them further apart but shared experiences of the horrors of war will change that when they both enlist.

The Australian angle adds great depth to the story as apart from the Commonwealth duties, this was a war that could so easily have been someone else's problem for the girls. The other nurses they befriend on their journey are all similarly independent minded and plucky. Keneally tells us little about them but lets their characters come through over time. At first this can be difficult to keep track of but as the book progresses, we start to care deeply about all of them for all their faults and foibles. The fact that it took a strong amount of independence of character to volunteer doesn't make these easy people to initially warm to but as we share their experiences you cannot help but admire and love them.

By definition the nurses remained on the periphery of the action, although by decreasingly small geographic distances. This might have led to a feeling of detachment but it allows Keneally to evoke how these brave girls experienced the war as they got closer and closer to the action. They go from virtual sightseers in Egypt where their troop ship first arrives to being very much in the thick of things.

Being Australian, the first action they are close to is Gallipoli where they work on a hospital ship, but their adventures don't end there as they get closer and closer to the action in France. Along the way there are remarkable friendships, romantic encounters and a wealth of often quite graphic medical encounters. It's beautifully researched and you quickly become taken up in the story. I'm not a huge fan of the hospital drama genre but even I was taken in.

The message of the story is not much more profound than what separates survivors from the fallen is little more than a gossamer thread of luck. However, it stands as a fitting tribute to the braveness of these young girls who volunteered to sign up to a fight so far away from home even when the authorities were trying to keep women from the front line.

Unfortunately one of the most remarkable aspects of the book is the ending, which of course I can reveal little about here. Suffice to say that it is unexpected after what has been a very conventional narrative up to that point. It's poignant and moving and is one of those endings that you will just want to talk about with someone else who has read the book. Get a friend to read it at the same time, because you will want to take about the ending. Trust me.

Huge thanks to the kind people at Sceptre for sending us this remarkable book.

In very much the same vein, Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn also looks at the contribution of women to the war effort, but from a very English perspective and is very highly recommended.

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