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The daughter of Mars by Thomas Keneally

The daughter of Mars (edition 2012)

by Thomas Keneally

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Title:The daughter of Mars
Authors:Thomas Keneally
Info:North Sydney, N.S.W. : Vintage Books, 2012.
Collections:Your library

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The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally


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Daughters of Mars is Thomas Keneally’s epic story of World War I as seen through the eyes of two Australian sisters, Naomi and Sally, who are nurses that enlist. Carried first to Egypt, and then to the Dardanelles to nurse men savaged by the fighting at Gallipoli. Originally they are on the hospital ship Archimedes, but eventually the army can’t resist using the hospital ship as a means to transport troops and horses to the front and they are torpedoed and sank. The sisters survive, but then are placed on the island of Lemnos and put under the control of a colonel who doesn’t think battlefield nursing is meant for women.

The sisters originally have a rather strained relationship due to their sharing of a family secret but being constantly together and sharing the conditions and horrors of battlefield nursing draws them closer and they develop a friendship that strengthens their bond. Eventually they are moved on to France with Naomi in an English run hospital, Sally originally in an Australian and then transferred to a casualty clearing station. The author covers the Durance sisters war experience from 1914 to 1918 in great detail, but even at it’s most intense, there was a detachment or a distance between the reader and the events being portrayed that kept me from being totally swept away by this story.

Overall, as one would expect, this is a grim but powerful book. The author doesn’t hold back in his descriptions of the horror of untreatable wounds, the lack of medical equipment, the unflinching assembly line treatment that many soldiers received. But this is also the story of two women, their longing for new horizons, their lack of preparation for the butchery that they had to deal with, their relationship with each other and with the people that they meet along the way.

The Daughters of Mars is both a sweeping epic and a smaller more intimate revealing of these two woman’s lives. This was an excellent read, but a couple of quibbles kept it from getting five stars, one was the distance from the story that I felt during the reading, and the second is the divided ending of which I wasn’t a fan. However, seeing the war from this mostly medical viewpoint really brought home to me the ultimate cost in terms of human lives forever damaged and lost. ( )
1 vote DeltaQueen50 | Jan 18, 2015 |
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. ( )
4 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 |
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To the two nurses,
Judith and Jane
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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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"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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