The Daughters of Mars is a long book of nearly 600 pages, and when it failed to engage me in the first couple of chapters I might not have progressed with it had it not been longlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award. Thomas (Tom) Keneally is, for me, an uneven author these days: now that I have discovered his brilliant early flirtation with the modernism that I enjoy, (see my review of his Miles Franklin winning Bring Larks and Heroes), I find his more commercial fiction wanting.
There is no doubt that The Daughters of Mars is pitched at a commercial audience. It ticks all the right boxes: it plays to the ANZAC fixation in Australia, and it celebrates the contribution of women who were on active service in WWI as nurses. There is love tried, tested and true among the tragedy, and there is a complex moral issue thrown in for book clubs to unpick. It’s also – once past the scene setting early chapters – a jolly good story, told in straightforward chronological order, scraping into Miles Franklin contention (by my rules i.e. those of Franklin herself) by moving the setting from Australia to ANZAC scenarios and back again. The only authorial adventure is to offer a bizarre ‘choose-your-own’ ending, the subject of some consternation in the consumer reviews that I have read.
By coincidence I am also reading Kitty’s War by Janet Butler, an historian’s exploration of a WWI nurse’s diaries. I am going to the Melbourne launch of this book next week and I will review this book when I’ve finished it, though that may be a while yet. (For as you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I always take longer to read non-fiction because I only read it over breakfast, which is necessarily brief when I am back at work). However, already I can tell that Kitty’s War is a more illuminating celebration of the work of the 200-odd Aussie nurses of The Great War because it offers more than mere knowledge of the experience of one woman at war or even of women at war more generally:
…the historian’s enquiring gaze [can] cast a questioning eye on the diary as a medium, and to ask questions that historians have not been able to ask of other material.
…a world of great complexity lies within the covers of a woman’s diary. Socially acceptable – even expected – psychologically useful, and an agent of change in its own right, the diary more than any other kind of writing reflects both life-in-process and the many facets of the self: both change and identity.
(Kitty’s War, by Janet Butler, UQP 2013, p. 5)
Keneally, on the other hand, brings a more vivid picture of life in that period and in that place. A master storyteller and a craftsman with words is better equipped to engage the reader imaginatively than an amateur diarist writing under pressure at the end of a busy and often confronting day. He apparently used journals of nurses as source materials, and there is a sense of veracity in most of the plot, though there are times when this authenticity disappoints. Of course we all know that there was poor military judgement in WWI, and we know that there was discrimination against women making any contribution. But I would have expected a story-teller of Keneally’s calibre to present a more nuanced depiction of the administrators who vexed the Durance sisters rather than the stereotypical view that we’re so familiar with.
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 – exacerbated by sibling rivalry – invokes misunderstanding, guilt and a need for expiation, and the women volunteer to join the small numbers of nurses allowed to go on active service. Keneally occasionally labours the point that the penance of war brings redemption as well as reconciliation between the women, but 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, bullet and bomb. Gas, when it comes, is even more horrific, in a novel that revolves around the effects of warfare. There are no battlefield scenes at all.
Other reviewers have also commented on the most vivid scene: the horrific sinking of the Archimedes. (This was a real ship, requisitioned as British Expeditionary Force supply ship, but she was actually 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. (p.155)
Here again Keneally uses his characters to interrogate the right to choose the time and circumstance of death; amid all the calamitous deaths in the icy waters, 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.
Sally leaned her forehead against the raft’s black rubber flank while Naomi began to lift Nettice, who was vulnerable for lack of a preserver. Nettice was light to lift and of surprising agility. The sergeant did not help but not out of ill-will. After so much presence and command he had gone suddenly silent. The high intoxication of his reaching the raft waned in him. He lost his powers of command as awful surprise and cold entered him. (p.164)
Like many other novels by Keneally, The Daughters of Mars has been reviewed in the UK press. James Walton reviewed forThe Telegraph, and James Urquhart for The Guardian. And there are two very different reviews at the SMH: Andrew Reimer comes closest to my perspective while Simon Caterson is impressed by the book’s ‘epic dimension’.
Will The Daughters of Mars win the Miles Franklin? It’s not in the same league as Keneally’s previous prize-winning novels…