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Reviews: New Fiction The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

An unforgettable novel.

In his aptly titled The Daughters of Mars, Mars being the Roman god of war, Australian writer Thomas Keneally has fashioned an unforgettable novel. The story revolves around sisters Naomi and Sally Durance, young Australian nurses who volunteer In the Mediterranean during World War I. Recently the Great War has become something of a staple of fiction prompting some readers to think that no new take on that cataclysm could possibly make them experience the tragedy in a new way. Keneally, however, in revealing it through the eyes of two unworldly young women offers readers a fresh look at the conflict.

As Naomi and Sally embark for war duty, they suffer both sorrow and guilt – sorrow because their mother has died from cancer and guilt because they hurried that death along by injecting the suffering woman with an overdose of morphine. Sally rationalizes that they did the “loving and hard thing,” yet she cannot shake off her shame over the mercy killing.

The young women travel to Cairo for their training “in the shadow of the Egyptian pyramids.” The sight of the relentless desert prompts in Sally an insight: “She was sure all at once that this was why the pyramids were built. To deal with the infinity the Egyptians saw in all directions. Those towering objects were so simple and triangular and undeniable that they called up memory of other things that were elemental and undeniable.”

Keneally describes the Archimedes, the hospital ship to which Naomi and Sally have been assigned: “Here was a passenger steamer painted white and banded in green with, at mid ship, a vast red cross. The cross bespoke its right to transit oceans and to turn up in Europe or elsewhere unmolested.”

A colorful character, Matron Mitchie, supervises the ship’s nursing staff. Keneally describes her demeanor as a “daredevil strut across the narrow wire strung between humor and vulgarity.” Later in the novel she will demonstrate phenomenal courage. She welcomes the women aboard telling them that the Greek god for whom the ship is named, Archimedes, loved baths and sank himself to displace water in necessary spots on the earth. She declares: “Let us hope he looks down upon his ship and his sisters with a gentle gaze…You have been chosen for your sobriety and nursing skills. You must not depart from those strengths.”

Skillfully Keneally places the war offstage, and what we do witness – in shattering detail – are its effects, particularly the deep scars that the bloody campaign leaves on the psyches of the Australian nurses. He reminds us that Gallipoli does not refer to one single battle; “it was a horrific series of conflicts that lasted more than eight months.” As the Archimedes sails toward Gallipoli, he portrays the prevailing attitude. It occurs to the medical staff that the Dardanelles were Turkish and in close proximity to the seat of the Ottoman Empire. On the one hand this evokes prejudices concerning the scimitar and the harem and the torture chamber. While on the other hand these old-fashioned customs seem to imply that the Turks are less accurate and less well-trained shots than the Germans. The staff’s enmity was reserved for the Germans, “the malign Huns who had molested Belgian nuns and clearly knew how to string out a battle.” Reassuring rumors spread through the ship that the fight at Gallipoli would be quick and painless: “Kaiser Bill had dumped all his defective arms on the poor Turks because he needed the decent ones in France and Belgium.”

In the event, however, on Gallipoli “the bugle did not lead men into battle but was blown to warn [hospital] ships when wounded were on their way.” It was there that countless young Australian men gave up “their brains and limbs and hearts.” Faced with injuries of “spectacularly varied horror,” not to mention the dysentery ward or the “rest compound,” which treats mental patients, the nurses soon feel exhausted, inadequate and demoralized. In addition to Naomi who is “flashy and superbly capable” and Sally, who is sensitive and steadfast, we become acquainted with a handful of their nurse colleagues and each of these is a distinct persona rendered with a compelling life-story. If in less detail, Keneally also portrays officers, physicians, surgeons and orderlies. Sally, in her typically grave musings, reflects that her patients’ wounds come from the devil but that their toughness comes from God.

Unquestionably the novel’s tour de force is the set-piece depicting the sinking of the Archimedes. Replete with suspense, brutal particulars, and deep emotion, the depiction proves to be an excellent vehicle for characterization. Sally and her nurse friend Honora are thrown by the torpedo’s impact, head and shoulders first, into the water. As they hang by ropes to a lifeboat Honora tells Sally that they must make their acts of contrition. Sally replies with sarcasm and water-logged fury, saying “And who’s ‘heartily sorry’ the Archimedes sank?”

In the water Sally encounters Ian Kiernan (the Australian officer who will one day court and marry Naomi.) He is actually smiling and commands Sally to remain angry with him. “Angry people,” he shouts, “have a lot of staying power.” The proximity of Kiernan gives Sally hope. “He made the water more habitable,” notes Keneally. “A sort of hope floated up with him and raised the temperature for the moment. Floating free of the raft Kiernan frowned as he surveyed Sally. He reached out and with a sort of force allowed only here and lifted her into closer connection with the rope loop. “Now don’t daydream, Nurse Durance. The current would love to take daydreamers. You should be atop (in the lifeboat), you know.”

Miraculously a French destroyer rescues the shipwreck victims. “After being lifted up to the deck each of them is wrapped in a blanket by sailors with pompoms on their hats like in a play.” Lying on a straw mattress on the floor of an officer’s cabin “Sally quaked with remembered and not yet dispelled terror and found herself concerned above all with her mind… [Her rescue] could just as easily not have happened. It could have been replaced by: drowned in the Mediterranean. She was tenuous. She might still swerve at any second from her rescued state into oblivion…Such a thin skin existed between parallel states and chances that they could leak or bleed or be welded into one another.”

Six out of 20 nurses perished in the sinking of the Archimedes. The disaster transformed Sally’s very essence. As Keneally spells it out: “Sally knew that unless it was for a purely ceremonial event no one could inveigle her to church. God had left the earth by now and was hidden amidst the stars. Good for him! A first-class choice, the way things were. Yet she also knew that even in her disappointment with the deity, behind her failure to believe any further, lay a soul designed for belief.”

After its account of the wreck of the Archimedes the novel’s backdrop changes from ocean to land. The nurses travel north, assigned to front-line clearing stations in Lemnos, then France and finally England. These medical facilities are scandalously ill-equipped and under-staffed. While chronicling the bloody human waste of various battles, replete with infantry, gunners, stretcher bearers and orderlies, Keneally seamlessly weaves into the narrative the love relationships of Naomi with Ian Kiernan, and of Sally and Charlie Condon, the Australian soldier/artist. Earlier in the narrative an injured officer had proposed marriage to Naomi. He had shouted his offer on the pitching and noisy deck of a troop ship dangerously heeling in the gales of a high-wind storm – “a ridiculous, wind-drenched shout of a question.” Naomi shouted back, “It’s too early. I believe men are often early with these ideas and often wrong.”

As the Great War finally winds down, Keneally reminds us, there came an even deadlier enemy: the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19. A remorseless killer, the flu took ten times as many lives worldwide as the war had. It is this catastrophe that provides The Daughters of Mars with its poignant and bittersweet ending.

It’s not by chance that Keneally’s work resonates with authenticity. In material unearthed in state archives he researched wartime journals of Australian nurses. His experience as a novelist is apparent in the book’s graphic settings – the Mediterranean Sea, Australia, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and England among them. He describes rural France with its sprinkling of statues of the Virgin and the crucified Christ in their little roadside shrines. “Christ and the Virgin obviously presented themselves village by village to the French troops as a small promise of protection and another scale (layer) to a man’s armor.”

The novel’s themes are persistent but never preachy. For example, it conveys the “high price tag of war,” the fact that “Australians, tucked away blamelessly at the bottom of the world, have often found themselves at the dark center of European history,” and the unfairness of young people suffering and dying because of decisions that they had no part in making.

The intensity of theme in no way diminishes Keneally’s characterization. By the conclusion of the book our understanding of human nature and relationships has deepened impressively.