The first world war is fertile territory for Australian writers and few things loom as large in our national consciousness as legend of the ANZACS. We’re now less than two years away from the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli and there’s bound to be a rash of books out to commemorate it, but I’m betting few will be as good as The Daughters of Mars.
The prodigious Kenneally is now 78 and has authored 27 works of fiction by my count, not to mention all of his non-fiction works. Shaping a fictional story around historical events is his bread and butter.
This is the story of two sisters, Sally and Naomi, from northern NSW, who join the army as nurses in WWI. Their travels in Egypt and arrival at Gallipoli take up most of the first half, punctuated by one of the most exciting extended scenes I’ve read in a while, where their ship is sunk and they spend many hours in the water before finally being rescued.
But the story starts with a chapter entitled ‘Murdering Mrs Durance’ and we know immediately that one of the girls won’t come home. The girls are united by their complicity in hastening the end of their mother’s life to spare her the pain of terminal cancer. But they never speak to each other of what happened and it serves as a barrier to closeness for more than half the story. But for me this doesn’t work. I think it might be because I don’t regard giving a strong dose of morphine to someone who is dying and in dreadful pain as wrong, and the two girls both wanted to take this course. It seems more like an event that would have drawn them together. I think nurses find themselves in a position where they do this more often than we know but perhaps I am discounting too much how devastating it would be to have to do this to your own mother. Anyway, for me at least, I was unconvinced by the impact of this action on the way the girls denied themselves closeness afterwards.
It made me realise that if as a writer you are going to have something happen to a character that really affects how they act, you have to make absolutely sure the reader understands why the event is so significant.
The second half of the story takes place in France, with Sally serving in a medical clearing station near the front, and Naomi working in an Australian Volunteer hospital in the south, funded by a wealthy English socialite. Along the way we meet the other nurses they befriend, as well as the soldiers they form relationships with.
The real power of this story, which makes it such a great read, is the intensive research that has been ploughed into it. Kenneally really makes you feel what it must have been like to be a nurse at the front in WWI. The medical detail is extensive and credible and I really appreciated the attention to detail. It also deals very sensitively with the effects of war on emotions and the all-too-regular death of people the characters become close to and form relationships with. It also examines up close the condition we now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder, known back then as shell shock. The war is Mars, the God of war, and the nurses are the daughters of war.
The story is narrated in third person omniscient but we are mainly in close third with Sally, the younger sister. The style of writing read quite formally to me and I’m wondering was it intended to convey the reserved nature of women at that time. This, for example:
It is no humiliation for me, thought Sally, to take the sergeant’s money. But it was strange to see Naomi there – in line with the less august for a small sum of cash. On an impulse Sally asked the girls in front of her whether they minded if she joined her sister.
They flung their arms around each other with a force left unspent from yesterday’s quarrel. And in its compass not all grievance was tamed but at least the residue was put to momentary rest.
Its a style that feels old-fashioned to me and it has the effect of putting distance between the reader and the characters. I struggled to really feel and understand these women because I felt at arms length from them. Perhaps Kenneally struggled to write the opposite sex, something I think is very hard to do.
Anyway, this is a wonderful story of the first world war, a great insight into the horror of the Western front and Gallipoli.