The Daughters of Mars is an epic sweep of WW1, from the start through to after the Armistice, from Australia, to Egypt, the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, the Western Front and back.
The Daughters of Mars is an intimate account of the WW1 adventures of two sisters, both nurses, from New South Wales.
Thomas Keneally’s novel succeeds at both.
Naomi and Sally Durance are daughters of cow cockies (small dairy farmers) in the Macleay Valley. Naomi has already left home to live in Sydney, leaving Sally at home to care for their father and dying mother. Signing up for the war effort is a way for both to escape a shared secret.
What they learn! With the first casualties, “‘Shrapnel chest and shoulders’ someone had scribbled on his label. Sally was not sure what shrapnel was.” (p 71) They become more worldly and wise.
What they survive! Their ship is torpedoed and sunk when it is temporarily converted to a troop ship. “In novels … it’s the ones the writer does not let you know well who perish first.” (p 160)
Each sister comes into her own – Naomi taking control after the shipwreck and later working for a private hospital funded by an unconventional British aristocrat who had been first lady of Australia – Sally in a field hospital close to the front. They also grow to be friends.
The novel relates the common experiences of the war – patriotism, carnage, no tolerance for Sapphists, for example – as well as unique aspects of the Australian experience. Australians voted down conscription twice, relying completely on a voluntary force. They refused to execute deserters and traitors.
In the private hospital, some Red Cross volunteers had experience in Britain’s suffrage movement. Naomi’s group “delighted in telling them that Australian women had had the suffrage for – how long was it now? – twelve years. But they could not pretend it had delivered women from care – from being aged beyond their years and strength by labour and concern.” (p 322)
With such a broad sweep, the novel offers some interesting contrasts. We see the differing cultures in a variety of hospitals, and the implications for the nurses. In some, doctors and matrons respect their professionalism. In others, the nurses are held in contempt and abused by doctors, matrons, orderlies and patients. Keneally also compares operations and reputations of military and private hospitals.
Some reviewers are bothered by Keneally’s idiosyncratic writing style, with no quotation marks around dialogue. For me, it did not detract from understanding who was speaking. I also think his alternative endings make sense. They simply bring home the randomness of death in war.
“Have no doubt about it, she commanded 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?” (p 415)