The walking wounded

The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally, Sceptre, RRP£18.99, 528 pages

Thomas Keneally has made a long study of war. His novels have dealt with conflicts from the hundred years war (Blood Red, Sister Rose, 1974) and the American civil war (Confederates, 1979) to the second world war (the Man Booker-winning Schindler’s Ark, 1982) and the Eritrean revolution (Towards Asmara, 1989). His narratives cross continents and centuries. His characters, meanwhile, are forced to choose how to play the roles forced on them by war and sustain themselves in the face of the assault that war makes on their moral as well as their physical fibre.

These themes are again uppermost in his new book, The Daughters of Mars, which follows two Australian sisters who sign up as nurses to tend the casualties of first the Gallipoli campaign and then the Somme. Rather than recount the familiar horrors of trench warfare, Keneally keeps away from the battlefield and sets almost all his action behind the lines in the hospitals and clearing stations that process mangled bodies and minds.

When Naomi and Sally Durance are introduced, however, they are not saving lives but taking one. Their mother has cervical cancer and the sisters use a pilfered cache of hospital morphine to end her ordeal, an act which is both a bond and a guilty secret. It is a sign from Keneally that he will not use them as mere ministering angels. It means too that when they join the nursing corps they are older than their years: as one character points out, all their surname is missing is “en” in front of it.

This is a novel of old-fashioned, almost 19th-century, amplitude and Keneally takes his time, using the long boat journey from Australia to Egypt to introduce the other main characters, a core group of fellow nurses, orderlies and officers, and then does some scene-setting in Cairo and among the pyramids. This genteel preamble includes a night-time visit to the Sphinx, which is lit by a flare “so that the wonderful and frightening face of the thing glowed from beneath, more terrifying and more godly than by day”. Its terrors are nothing against those the nurses encounter when the first casualties are winched aboard their hospital ship moored off Gallipoli.

In the first of many viscerally immediate scenes, Keneally describes the “torrent of the harmed” and the feverish cutting, swabbing and stitching that accompanies the “sucking recoil of sliced muscle and tendon”. A shot officer arrives “writhing and trembling, but with a sort of good-mannered lack of excess”; another has dysentery: “he had been a soldier but now was a flue”. Most of the men they can’t save die quietly, almost secretively.

This is just Keneally warming up. A bravura set piece follows when the hospital ship is torpedoed and the nurses watch from a half-crushed lifeboat as the horses on board leap into the sea and sailors fall into the still-spinning propellers “which cut them to sections and threw their blood about in a terrible mist so instant you could doubt it had happened”.

As the sisters follow the war from the Dardanelles to France, Keneally imparts a vast amount of information, from the outbreaks of suicide that would afflict maimed soldiers returning home to the different types of gas used in the trenches. He is an all-seeing narrator but combines his research so deftly with the storytelling that it never jars. He is also a shrewd observer of human nature and the emotions of his characters are mature. Romances occur but rather than being rushed, carpe diem affairs they form “a shadow of a quarter inch at a time”, as if delicacy is a necessary counterpoint to the brutality of war. The sisters are emotional novices and this unmelodramatic telling has the feel of authenticity about it.

There is a danger that the enormity of the subject could lead to the writing becoming strained in the effort to do it justice but Keneally keeps his focus on the fine-tunings of human nature and restricts his view of the war to the immediate concerns of his characters. Part of the poignancy of the sisters’ situation is their acute awareness that they are just grains of sand compared with the conflict itself; their loves and friendships can be washed away at any moment.

The first world war is so deeply imprinted on the general consciousness that there is something rather brave about Keneally, at 77, volunteering to go over the top and join the likes of Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks. If he has been foolhardy then he has also been triumphant: this epic saga is one of the best things he has written.

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