Is there more to say about World War I nurses and their patients after Hemingway’s uber-classic A Farewell to Arms? The saga of ambulance driver Frederic Henry and his beautiful English nurse Catherine Barkley is generally thought to be an unrivaled fictional treatment of what was called, at the time, the Great War. Could a different novelist squeeze additional juice from this particular grape?
Thomas Keneally handily manages the feat with his new historical novel, The Daughters of Mars. He does so by focusing on the lives of women. The bloody battlefields of Europe appear here primarily as a backdrop for the valiant and complex female characters who succor the soldiers: the Catherines of the era, in other words. The author — he may be best-known for his Booker-winning Schindler’s Ark, which was adapted into Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List — has previously delved into subjects of grand historical scope. Schindler, published in 1982, took a footnote of Holocaust history and made it into an epic, transformative drama of conscience in a world gone mad. Many of Keneally’s two dozen novels have tackled themes of similar intensity.
The Daughters of Mars (the title refers to the Roman god of war) is the work of a master storyteller, sharing a tale that is simultaneously sprawling and intimate. The two Durance sisters, Sally and Naomi, farm girls from the fertile Macleay Valley of eastern Australia, journey from their home in 1914, volunteering as nurses for the war’s duration. Sally is the younger country mouse to Naomi’s more sophisticated Sydney persona. But the learning curve is steep for both of these barely-out-of-girlhood healers. Keneally tells us at the novel’s start that “Sally was not sure what shrapnel was.” She learns. We follow the siblings’ intertwined experiences in the Mediterranean war theater. They serve aboard the hospital ship Archimedes and in Cairo. They treat survivors both from the Gallipoli campaign and the charnel house of the Western Front. The field hospitals move around a lot: The war is a movable bloodbath.
Keneally’s masterful command of detail is grounded in the nitty-gritty sleuthing that great historical fiction requires. A typical nugget: “The afternoon was taken up with crepe bandage preparation — running it through boiling water and eusol, hanging it out on rods to dry, winding it up.” How do writers know stuff like this? They go to primary sources; in Keneally’s case, the wartime journals of Australian nurses, unearthed in state archives. At times the research was even closer at hand. The author has said he gained insight into the complexity of sisterly dynamics by observing his own two daughters. At its heart this is a book about relationships, about two sisters who learn to accept each other’s differences.
Passage after passage in Daughters grabbed me with a crushing intensity. Archimedes sinks after a torpedo attack. Medical personnel and the wounded flail in the frigid ocean alongside screaming teams of horses. “Men still on the ship were now reduced to jumping from the stern or sliding down its curves. She saw two land in the churning propeller which cut them in sections and threw their blood about in a terrible mist so instant you could doubt it had happened.”
Keneally’s prose gets across the private thoughts, terrible fears and hard-won joys of young women in harrowing circumstances. It reveals the up-close realities of the teeming casualty clearing stations, a soldier’s face “shorn off,” the specific types of gas that were just then being unleashed on the soldiers. A crippling influenza afflicts nurses and patients alike, a true reflection of the millions of flu deaths during the war. But passion, wonder and tenderness are ready for their close-ups, too: stolen kisses furtively exchanged, a romantic visit to an Egyptian pyramid, a nurse who wears woolen gloves in a freezing ward so that she will not assault a patient’s skin with her cold fingers.
An occasional flash of purple in The Daughters of Marsmight suit some readers more than others. “Now they were going back …. on a sea that had chosen to be rough and under a steel-grey canopy of cloud.” But such descriptions made sense in my reading of Keneally’s world, where everything lives and breathes with marvelous intensity. Taking her sister by the chin, Naomi commands Sally in a lowered voice: “There are only two choices, you know. Either die or live well. We live on behalf of thousands who don’t. Millions. So let’s not mope about it, eh?”