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The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally
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The Daughters of Mars (edition 2012)

by Thomas Keneally

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Title:The Daughters of Mars
Authors:Thomas Keneally
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The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

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This year marks the centennial of the start of WWI -- a global collapse into brutality as horrific as Mars, the ancient Roman god of war, could have possibly devised. We have often been treated in novels and non-fiction to the male perspective. For Australian soldiers like those in this narrative), their participation has rightly been viewed as heroic. Thomas Keneally has chosen instead to portray this conflict from the view of Australian volunteer nurses, particularly the two Durance sisters, Sally and Naomi. Through them, we are dropped into Gallipoli, Lemnos, the sinking of the Archimedes and the Western Front.

This is a gripping tale which kept me rapt from first to last. The tensions between the sisters, their sense of alienation from their home and family, mirror in some respects the tensions between the warring nations. Keneally's choice of dialogue sans quotation marks has distressed some. It wasn't an issue for me -- the pace continued to race along. I found the choice of alternate endings to be more offputting. It does have the fortunate result of giving something for everyone. I intend to search out more books from this author. ( )
  michigantrumpet | Sep 2, 2014 |
Beautiful writing and great period details! The book started out slow, but gradually became more and more absorbing. ( )
  agjuba | Jul 17, 2014 |
The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally; (4*)

Thomas Keneally writes with emotional tension across the years and gender divide. This is a wonderfully good story. It is well told but really not a story so much about the great wound inflicted on the world by mad men in 1914 but the madness of men that emerged from it and continue to drain like the gangrenous fleshy wounds of boys from Gallipoli to France and beyond into the present.
The women in the novel bear witness to the birth of a new madness as much as they try to heal the wounds of the old order. The misogyny of Lemnos in 1915 reverberates in Australia of 2012 when women leading, such as Sally or Naomi, Lady Tarleton or Matron Mitchie did in the novel are subject to scorn and derision by the privileged and ordinary men alike; that they are 'wrecking the joint' when in fact they are holding it together while the means to do so are redirected, prioritized and pilfered to the advance of men's causes.

The central characters are Sally and Naomi Durance whose story begins on a dairy farm near Kempsey NSW. Their mother is dying painfully of cancer and their nursing knowledge makes euthanasia possible. What happens is exacerbated by a quiet sibling rivalry which brings about misunderstanding, guilt and a need for expiation. The sisters volunteer to join the small numbers of nurses allowed to go into active service. The point that the horrors of the war brings redemption as well as reconciliation between the sisters begins when there is no doubting the heroism of the nursing done on the battlefields. Tidy arrangements beforehand were no preparation for the onslaught of the wounded and civilian nursing was no preparation for the damage done by shrapnel, bullets and bomb. Gas, when it comes, is even more horrific in a novel that revolves around the effects of warfare.

The horrific sinking of the Archimedes played hugely in this epic story. This was a real ship, requisitioned as a British Expeditionary Force supply ship and she actually was sunk in 1941 when she hit a mine.

"Sally saw the midships doorway open and tilted a few feet above the water. Protesting horses were jumping, their hooves stuttering on the last plates of steel beforehand. There were men in there, screaming at them to go and lashing their hindquarters. Mules fell gracelessly on their flanks as Archimedes’ own leaning flank loomed above them. Two nurses and some orderlies walked down the canting ship’s stairs a step or two and launched themselves. Still looking out at the sea from the rail she saw Nettice - squinting like a woman trying to recognise a face at a tea party. How had Nettice missed the lifeboats? By choice or accident? Already Sally and Honora and the remnants and population of their own shattered boat were sliding astern of Archimedes and could see a little of the great rump of the ship rising by degrees. They could at once see men dropping from the lower port side closest to the shadowy surface of the water as well as others – by choice it seemed and with the howl of their lives – throwing themselves from the upmost, portside railing. They slid down the ship’s sides. Why did they choose that? What did the rivets do to their flesh? But men were queuing for the fright and abrasions of it.

'The thing will drag us under, called Honora. The bloody thing!'

Sally saw Naomi swim one armed, – a true surf Amazon indeed – dragging Mitchie by the collar of her life jacket. The water was full of claims to mercy. There was a soldier with a bandaged arm dragging another whose face had no flesh. Mitchie and Naomi were not any longer in the nursing and tending business, however."

"The the voices of some individuals are heard while others quietly slip away. In an age still of gallantry, the women were in the inadequate number of lifeboats because they were women but they survived because they showed the courage and tenacity usually ascribed to men on the battlefield."

Like their mother both the Durance sisters would succumb to the exhaustion of being women in an Australia whose youth was tempered in the fire and emerged, whatever the history books tell us of their physical and industrious valour, emotionally wrecked.

The Daughters of Mars took a bit for me to get into but I am so thankful that I stuck with it until the book drew me in and suddenly I was there along with the wounded, the nursing staff & doctors. I have read Keneally previously and am convinced that this is a much more masterful bit of writing than that of Schindler's List. I thought this a marvelous story and I highly recommend it. I have read a few books since and yet this one continues to resonate in my brain and in my heart.

Did the ending bother me? I don't think that it bothered me in and of itself but I did go back and read those few pages three or four more times. And I am sure that there will be a time in the future when I will need to revisit this novel. ( )
3 vote rainpebble | Jun 15, 2014 |
This is the story of two Australian sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, who volunteer their nursing skills in 1915 to aid Australian soldiers during the Great War. The nurses' travels take them from their father's dairy farm, first to Egypt, then to the Dardanelles, and finally to the Western Front in France. They start their journey with a shared secret that has held them distant from one another, but as their experiences caring for the wounded and dying become more and more personal, those same experiences bring the sisters closer together. More and more boys are carried away from the front, and more and more boys are poured in. Gas attacks add a new horror to the hospital tents. Influenza attacks not only the patients, but also the nurses and doctors. The friends they make and the friends they lose along the way, are defining parts of the story.

This is the fourth book I've read this year related to WWI and it is my favorite so far. The descriptions of the wounds and treatments are quite graphic, but I believe they were needed to give the full impact of the story. The harrowing experience aboard the hospital ship Archimedes was very realistic. Also woven into the story, the unimaginable descriptions of performing surgery at the clearing stations near the front as artillery fire sounded in the background or as bombs dropped around them made me worry about the main characters. While the story is fictional, history is fairly true to form as I know it. I definitely recommend this book.

***Keneally's note at the start of the book explains the lack of quotation marks in dialog "...might seem eccentric, but is designed to honor that of the forgotten private journals of the Great War...". I didn't have a problem with it. ( )
1 vote NanaCC | Jun 11, 2014 |
”She could hear the bombers now, in amongst the background thunder of guns, the Archies close by and the seamless rage of the barrage at the front. She waited a second and then placed her head in a groove between two stone moldings and began to shudder at the awful perversion of things---of sky not permitted to be sky, of air not permitted to be air.” (Page 465)

I’ve been doing a lot of WWI reading this year, both fiction and non-fiction, and Thomas Keneally’s powerful novel has come close to being the perfect vehicle for making me feel as though I am actually among the war participants. Keneally chose to focus his attention on the story of two Australians, the Durrance sisters, who volunteer as nurses in first, Gallipoli and Lemnos and later in the bloodbath known as the Western Front, like thousands of other Australian women who served in hospital ships and triage stations very near the front. The fact that Sally and Naomi carry an uneasy secret that has served to keep them at odds adds another element of narrative conflict that only serves to heighten the interest.

Keneally maintains a steadily increasing sense of horror as the chapters tick by, and the bodies pile up. His descriptions of the sinking of the hospital ship, Archimedes, by a German U-boat, had me holding my breath as his evocative powers enthralled. The man has an astute sense of pacing. And as the ship’s occupants gamely try to escape the ship, Keneally gives us this:

”Sally’s boat---descending by its hausers---now picked up too much downward speed. Looking over the gunwales she saw that because of the growing steepness of the deck her sister’s boat had swung in part below hers and had stuck in place, dipping unevenly. A mere instant later it dropped hectically and splashed into the sea. The ship was nose down and Sally saw that her boat would slam the stern of her sister’s and Mitchie’s unless it could be detached from its hawsers and rowed clear. Still attached to the Archimedes by its thick cables, the boat below them---with her sister in it---now turned crazily beam on and crosswise.” (Page 135)

At the same time, the strained relationship between the sisters seems to improve amid the chaos until they face up to the demon that’s between them and find resolution and that long sought commodity, love.

There’s so much going on in this very powerful look at WWI through the eyes of those not directly at the front, but within a stone’s throw of the carnage that all I can do is urge you to look for it sooner rather than later. Not everyone is going to be thrilled with the very cryptic ending but for me it was absolutely brilliant. Very highly recommended. ( )
7 vote brenzi | Jun 10, 2014 |
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To the two nurses,
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It was said around the valley that the two Durance girls went off but just the one bothered to come back.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"From the beloved author of Schindler's List, a magnificent, epic novel of two sisters, both nurses during World War I, that has been hailed as perhaps "the best novel of Keneally's career" (The Spectator)"--

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