The Daughters of Mars

By Thomas Keneally

(Atria, $28, 528 pages)

Who is this author?

You may not recognize the name Thomas Keneally, but I am betting you know his work. Once a seminarian in Australia, he abandoned his plan to become a priest and instead began his writing career in 1964. Among his 31 novels, many of which have won awards, is “Schindler’s Ark,” which became the 1982 Booker Award- and Academy Award-winning (for Best Picture) “Schindler’s List.” His “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” also became a film. He is also the author of plays and nonfiction books. Now 77, Keneally has just published a new historical novel, set in the World War I era.

What is this book about?

War novels usually focus on male characters, but “The Daughters of Mars” tells its tale through two Australian sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, who in 1915 become Army nurses. They are not strangers to death, having had a hand in helping their mother escape the ravages of incurable cancer, but they – and the readers – are understandably shocked by the horrors they encounter on a hospital ship near Gallipoli and then on the battlefield in France. Their courage is as remarkable as their experiences and yes, love as well as grief comes to these dedicated women. Keneally presents a compelling tale of the terrible pain and suffering war inflicts and the bravery and kindness that strive to alleviate it.

Why you’ll like it:

Keneally is one of those gifted authors who can capture the broad sweep of historic events through focusing on the individuals caught up in their power. He writes with great heart and humor, no matter how appalling the subject, and he stresses the humanity of his characters and their struggles to do the right thing in the midst of a maelstrom of evil. This is an inspiring book, made even more so by the horrific events in which his characters are caught.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “The horrific butcher’s bill of WWI trench fighting, which took a toll not only on the wounded soldiers but on the doctors and nurses who tended to them, is at the heart of this moving epic novel from the author of “Schindler’s List.” The story is told through the experiences of two sisters, Sally and Naomi Durance, both nurses, who enter the morally complex area of treating the devastatingly injured with peacetime experience. Eight months before the call went out from the Australian government for military nurses, Naomi apparently used some extra morphine that Sally had procured to end their mother’s suffering from inoperable cervical cancer. The euthanasia both drew the siblings together in a conspiracy of silence and created a barrier between them. Their duties take them to Egypt and Europe, as they struggle to stay alive, and to stay mentally composed despite the awful situations they must confront. By again using individuals to humanize a larger story, Keneally succeeds in conveying the experience to his readers in a manageable way.”

Says Library Journal: “In this latest from Booker Prize-winning author Keneally (“Schindler’s List”), Australian sisters Naomi and Sally Durance volunteer as nurses at the beginning of World War I. Initially posted to a medical ship off the coast of Greece, they survive a shipwreck and are eventually transferred to the European front in France, Sally to a clearing station and Naomi to a hospital established by an eccentric viscountess. Though the sisters’ viewpoints are seemingly limited, their service is a testament to the scope of war, as the number and nature of casualties they treat range from shrapnel and bayonet wounds to gassing, trench foot, shell shock, and finally the Spanish flu. Along the way we meet an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, including the resolute Matron Mitchie, returning to the front with a prosthetic leg, and Quaker Ian Kiernan, who volunteers for medical service but refuses a transfer to combat. VERDICT Keneally must have done copious research, but historical details and information about wartime medical treatment are presented organically, without the weight of historical retrospection. His ambiguous ending helps the reader bear the unbearable. Highly recommended.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Australian novelist Keneally (“Schindler’s List,” 1982, etc.) turns to his native country in a time of war. Anticipating the centennial of World War I by a shade, Keneally constructs a “Winds of War”–like epic concerning figures whom only Ernest Hemingway, among the first-tier writers, got to: military nurses. Naomi and Sally Durance are two sisters who join the Nursing Corps in 1915 and sail off to Gallipoli, where they witness terrible things and form bonds of attachment with the wounded soldiers who suffer them; no one with a sensitive stomach will want to read Keneally’s descriptions of their wounds. Crossing the Mediterranean, they experience the further terror of being torpedoed. Keneally’s set piece, which takes up nearly a tenth of this long but economical book, is extraordinarily moving, if often quite gruesome … Since Keneally has established soldiers and nurses alike as characters, the reader experiences their loss. Only on arriving at the Western Front do the sisters part, and there they discover “a dimension of barbarity that had not existed on Gallipoli and had been undreamed of in Archimedes,” namely the terror of gas warfare. There, too, each falls in love, which, this being a war story, cannot end well for the both; it is only the love-story element that does not entirely work in Keneally’s book, though it seems inevitable. For all that, Keneally is a master of character development and period detail, and there are no false notes there. Fans of “Downton Abbey” and “Gallipoli” alike will find much to admire in Keneally’s fast-moving, flawlessly written pages.”

The Canberra Times says: “Now, at last and triumphantly, there is a full-scale Keneally novel of the Great War…All of it is handled by Keneally with calm mastery. If epic is no longer a literary category that fits this world, “The Daughters of Mars” nonetheless has a tragic and humane span that few recent novels have attempted, let alone equalled.”

When is it available?

Keneally’s novel is on the new book shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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