Friday, November 15, 2013

Keneally Saves The Daughters Of Mars

The Daughters Of Mars by Thomas Keneally
Unable to cope with the death of their mother, guilt over how they managed her final moments, and the sadness of their father on their isolated farm, two Australian sisters escape to the worst place imaginable in 1915. They volunteer as nurses and are stationed on a hospital ship near Gallipoli.

Gallipoli holds historic significance for Australia and New Zealand. The campaign helped create the national consciousness of both countries as thousands of men were killed or wounded. They weren't alone. Almost 190,000 Allied casualties, excluding illness, were accounted for during the campaign.

The monotonous toll of trench warfare. 

Most of the Gallipoli opener is told from the sisters' perspective aboard the hospital ship as soldiers in need of more care or longer recovery are cleared from nearby field hospitals. It's here on the ship that the wounds endured are cataloged and categorized, setting the pace for a vivid depiction of the war.

The story doesn't end with the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign but carries itself out across the entirety of the Great War after the book's first epic transition — a scene that is arguably the most compelling in the novel. The hospital ship is torpedoed and sinks off the Greek Islands.

After being set adrift for days in an overcrowded life boat, with some survivors clinging to the sides, the sisters are eventually recovered and reassigned to the Western Front. Naomi Durance is set to work at a recovery hospital and her sister Sally is assigned to a casualty clearing station — their initial naivety and innocence already lost upon the wave after wave of causalities.

It is also in this maturity that the two sisters begin to be drawn together in ways they never experienced on their farm back home. The grow closer, recognizing that the war has changed them forever and only those who have experienced the weight of it might understand them.

It is perhaps for this reason they are both drawn to men who will challenge the way they view the world and their sometimes secret and personal experiences. One of the more interesting moralistic explorations is how a Quaker comes to terms with assisting in the war effort. And like he does with many of the characters, these moral struggles is how author Thomas Keneally gets inside them.

Its grimness, historic cadence, and length sometimes work against it. 

Keneally adopted a style that suits the time as an added a layer of authenticity. But this also means he prefers the em dashes over commas, an absence of quotation marks, and some properness in how one might turn a phrase. There is a trade off in this technique, namely readability and empathy.

While some might argue the aloofness might be part of the point as the sisters attempt to keep their distance from the dying (Naomi less so), Keneally sometimes gets lost in the long lists of mutilated men, first from Gallipoli and then the Somme. Indeed, it sometimes feels as if he ties his better story segments together with a graphic accounting of casualties that masquerades as the daily drudge.

Thomas Keneally
It works to come extent, as it all comes around again and again, in that it dulls the senses much like the nurses may have been dulled or indifferent by the end of it. Keneally paints beautiful and sometimes epic or heroic images that will linger, but eventually the sisters impart their own sullen states to the reader until the pointlessness of the war and maybe the book is all that is left.

Perhaps this is to be expected from a writer like Keneally. Much like Schindler's List, The Daughters Of Mars feels important to start, creates an sense of enthusiasm to finish, and is probably too painful to pick up again. And yet, it can easily be said it is refreshing to see such a talented writer continually challenge himself after 30 novels and almost two dozen non-fictions.

The Daughters Of Mars By Keneally Survives 3.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The subject matter of Keneally makes for a sweeping story that lays the Great War out bare. As for its distractions —alternating brisk and plodding pace, occasional repetitiveness, and creative punctuation — can be tempered by listening to the audiobook as opposed to reading the printed page. The end will leave some readers wondering, but it is also this finish that makes the novel worth the wonderment.

The Daughters of Mars: A Novel by Thomas Keneally can be found on Amazon. The book is also available from Barnes & Noble or can be downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook is narrated by Jane Nolan. She does the book justice even if she too struggles with keeping the sisters distinct.
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