Barbara C. (Fountain Hills, AZ)
The Daughers of Mars
The Daughters of Mars. Mars the god of war. What a perfect title for a book which lays bare the horrors, the futility, the brutality, and "glories" of war. Sally and Naomi are the daughters, the faithful sister nurses from Australia, who devote three years of their lives to saving and mending the broken bodies and minds of the men who were fed into the flames of the war machine of World War I.
Keneally does not stint on the scenes, smells and feel of the men under fire who suffered shrapnel, bullets, bombings and the ghastly new killing device - mustard gas. The medical procedures, techniques and equipment used in 1916 were precursors of our modern medicine - chloroform, ether, blood transfusions, sepsis control, and morphine. As primitive as the surgical and medical theatres were, it was interesting to read that these methods saved lives and repaired bodies, even then.
The formal writing style of Keneally is rather Dickensian in it archaic structure, constrained tone, and unique turn of phrase. Several sentences and paragraphs required second readings to fully grasp the meaning and content of the words - vocabulary so diverse and complex to require a dictionary. The lack of quotation marks was, at first, a questionable technique, but, in reading further, it seemed to provide a flow and exchange of dialogue without the constant break of marks.
It took a while into the book before the sisters came to life. The constant jumping from one to the other within a chapter was disconcerting and a bit confusing. at first Charlie, Ian, Mitchie, Lady Tarlton and Constable were perfect foils as companions to the sisters. It was interesting to see the change in Naomi as she was introduced to the Quaker community, and Sally as Charlie exposed her to the art masters.
One criteria of a "good book" is its influence on the reader to further research ideas, characters, incidents, places, etc. The Daughters of Mars was a wealth of new information: ANZAC and involvement of Australians in WWI; the timeline and theatres of the war; the medical techniques; the devastation of venereal disease and influenza; the idea of conscription and shirkers were all concepts introduced in the book which required more thought and background research.
Of course, the ending still has me scratching my head. Did Keneally really mean to have two endings and have the reader pick? Was he trying to find the best ending? Am I missing something? After his forthright and non-emotional language throughout the book, the complex and magical realistic duplicity was a shock. Yes, there were little surprises here and there, like the questions as to whether Sally and Naomi did commit a mercy killing, but all in all, the story was rather straightforward until this mysterious ending.
If a book club is willing to read a very long and dense book, and is amenable to reading about lots and lots of bloody wartime injuries, this book has much food for thought and discussion.
Sandra H. (St. Cloud, MN)
The War to End All Wars
Too often novels about war are only incidentally about women or have secondary women characters. But in The Daughters of Mars Thomas Keneally puts them front and center allowing readers to see and experience what it was like to be a nurse in World War I, long before women were thought to be capable of doing more than cleaning up wards and wounded patients and following orders from anyone who wore pants.
Australians Sally and Naomi Durance are no nonsense young women who sign up to become military nurses in early 1915. During the next five years, they learn that there is much more to nursing than their training has prepared them for. From their first experience in the Dardanelles on the peninsula in Gallipoli where the Australians are brutally beaten in a battle the soldiers and their commanders had expected to win with ease, we follow them to France and England as they serve in hospitals and on the front. Sally, Naomi, and the other nurses fight battles to help severely wounded soldiers with serious head wounds, blindness, amputations, and PTSD using medical knowledge that was not much advanced from the American Civil War days. And they must also battle an ingrained male belief that women are indeed the weaker and less important of the sexes.
On a larger scale, Keneally shows the effects of this devastating war not only on the soldiers and the nurses, but also the civilians who struggle to understand the unimaginable. Lives are destroyed, love is found and lost. Keanelly spares us nothing.
I have but two complaints. First, a map of the Dardenelles and Gallipoli would have been especially useful. Next, I wish that Kenneally had simply ended the book without choices.
Read this book to experience life in a world that we know so little about and has as much to say about the human experience today as it does about life 100 years ago. Don't miss that experience.
Nancy O. (Hobe Sound, FL)
Couldn't put this one down
There's so much to this book that it will probably require a second reading (no problem there -- I've already ordered a "real" copy) but in the meantime, once I started it I was having trouble putting it down to do real-world things. I don't say that about a book too often, but this one drew me in and kept me there, largely due to a) its emphasis on the nurses and how they coped with the horrors of war all around them, b) the stories of the wounded soldiers whose lives were in some cases forever altered, and c) the number of interesting dilemmas posed by the author throughout the book. I was also caught up in Keneally's powerful writing -- although the book may have been a bit overlong, I was really taken by his ability to write in such a way that his descriptions became real, especially in the scenes of the attack on the ship and the depictions of the suffering of the wounded. As an FYI, the author does not use quotation marks around dialogue, but I didn't have a problem with it at all. Also, the dual endings might be confusing (or for some, annoying), but I found them to be in keeping with one of the overall themes of this book -- the randomness of life which at any time may offer a host of unexpected outcomes.
People who are interested in WWI might find this book of interest, since obviously an incredible amount of research went into this novel; readers of well-written historical fiction or anti-war fiction will also find it worth their while. It's also certainly a book club candidate for the number of issues raised throughout the story.
Super book, one I highly recommend.
Tilli F. (Florence, MA)
Daughters of Mars
This was a difficult book for me to read. This author has a style that puts great distance between this reader and the characters. Thus even though there are many horrible things that happen during the course of the book: the Australian experience at Gallipoli and on the French front during World War One, and deals with the nurses experiences in those catastrophic events, I found myself very distant from the sisters who are the main characters as well as the other nurses. Death, grief, terror - all are experienced by this reader as academic events that are of academic interest. I have felt this way about the other Kaneally books I have read, but thought this one would be different. Sadly, it wasn't. At the end there is a peculiar style which piqued my interest, but it was too little, too late
Mary S. (Pinson, AL)
The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally
I enjoyed this story of two sisters, both trying to escape a secret at home by dedicating their lives to nursing during World War I. The friendships and romances that develop on the front-lines make this an interesting read; however, Keneally's image of medical care in the chaos of the battlefield may not be for everyone. I think this novel would make an excellent discussion for book groups.
Judy W. (Tucker, GA)
Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally
I plowed through this book in order to write a review for BookBrowse; otherwise, I would have stopped reading after the first 50 pages. The writing is quite good, but nothing seemed to flow throughout the 500 pages. His character development is quite in-depth and descriptive. The plot of the story, Australian nurses serving in WWI, is unique. I would recommend this title to others with the caveat that I did not enjoy it.
Nancy H. (Foster City, CA)
A very powerful portrayal
The author writes about the battlefield realities of WWI with great power and poignancy. One is drawn into what could otherwise seem an overly bleak tale by the humanity, bravery and dedication of countless medical professionals and volunteers whose everyday heroism insists on our respectful attention. It is a whallopingly powerful story that is likely to become a screenplay and successful movie in no time.
I have not read other books by Keneally, and if the writing style is the same as this I would not. I found the lack of traditional punctuation uncomfortable and the overall style dense and yet somehow bloated at the same time. He seems to paint characters with greater clarity than he does their situation and surroundings. The characters were so interesting that I found much of the other description a distraction. Many times I put the book down because there was too much of a slog through descriptions when what I really wanted to know was what would next happen to his wonderful characters. Honestly, I think a good hundred pages could be removed without weakening the story. I'd also be curious to know if he was over deadline when he wrote the ending, which to me was another distraction from the respect I developed for many of the characters.