My newest literary addiction is World War I fiction so I was thrilled to win a copy of Thomas Keneally’s “The Daughters of Mars” – the story of two Australian nurses serving just behind the front lines of the biggest battles in World War I.
The novel starts off a bit slow, even as Naomi and Sally Durance are bonded by the tragic, possibly assisted suicide death of their mother who has suffered greatly from cervical cancer. That thread of story follows them the entire novel but it seems somehow separate from the rest.
When the sisters volunteer as nurses and are immediately sent to Gallipoli on a hospital ship, the story changes. Sally and Naomi go through a rollercoaster of emotions, experiences, and events that define who they were before the war and shape who they will be after the way. It’s not always easy to see what they’re seeing but Keneally leaves no doubt that what he puts in their eyes is what any nurse in World War I would have seen.
The brightest parts of the novel are the somewhat vast cast of supporting characters. Matron Mitchie, Honora Slattery, Karla Freud, Ian Kiernan, Charlie Condon, Lady Tarlton… each are so different from the other, each are so independent and believable and honest. None of them come from the same background and each of them support Naomi and Sally in different, essential ways.
Even below them, the more secondary supporting characters – the soldiers Naomi and Sally see on the doomed hospital ship, on Lemnos, in the hospitals of France – are individuals and men that you will remember long after you finished the book. They serve to show the horrors of war. Maybe it would be easier to read if it were fictional but… it’s not. Men really went through what the soldiers in this book experienced. Keneally paints that picture with haunting words and descriptions.
I want to give the book five stars, I really do. But I can’t. I got over the total lack of quotation marks because it quickly didn’t matter to me, and that’s the original thing that bothered me. It doesn’t anymore. The thing that bothers me now is that the last fifteen pages had a sort of “choose your own adventure” feel to them that seemed inappropriate to the gravity of the rest of the story. I just wanted it to end, even in heartbreak, one way. I didn’t want to know what it could have been if this happened and then what could have been if that happened instead.
“The Daughters of Mars” is available for purchase.
(I received a copy of “The Daughters of Mars” through the Goodreads FirstReads program in return for a honest review. This review will be cross-posted on Goodreads and on my blog.)