BOOK REVIEW: The Daughters of Mars (Tom Keneally, Vintage)

A sprawling saga, The Daughters of Mars is based on journals kept by Australian nursing sisters who laboured in claustrophobic hospital ships, casualty clearing stations and hospitals in Europe during the First World War. Sisters Naomi and Sally Durrance have their own reasons for volunteering, as do many of their newfound nursing friends, but they are tested beyond endurance as they try to save lives and ameliorate suffering in challenging, often hopeless conditions. Yet it is in this unlikely setting that several of these courageous, resourceful women meet the remarkable men with whom they wish to spend the rest of their lives. Tom Keneally is at his powerful best when he is writing about the ships, the tent hospitals and the visionary Australian Voluntary Hospital. His descriptions— the arrival and treatment of hundreds of wounded at a time, of life and death decision-making, of medicine practised under impossible conditions, and of the inexhaustible compassion and drive of the doctors, nurses and orderlies—are moving and compelling. The book reaches another level of horror and suffering with the advent of gas warfare and this reader began to rebel against the detailed description of yet more ways to maim and kill young men. The phrase ‘strong editor’ came to mind. However, Keneally is a ‘heart on sleeve’ writer and the reader is carried along by his mix of humdrum rural life in peacetime, and excitement of what was idealistically seen as a short, sharp war in Europe. The sheer courage and tenacity of those caught up in the increasingly protracted struggle, and the friendships, romances, feuds and tragedies of his all-too-human cast, add layers to this complex, factually based novel.

Max Oliver is a veteran Australian bookseller. This review first appeared in the Bookseller+Publisher website in April 2012. View more pre-publication reviews here.

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