Australia, Author, Book review, Egypt, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Sceptre, Setting, Thomas Keneally

‘The Daughters of Mars’ by Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 520 pages; 2012.

Australian writer Thomas Keneally is probably best known for his novel Schindler’s Ark, which won the Booker Prize in 1982 and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film (under the name Schindler’s List) by Steven Spielberg in 1994. But he has a vast backlist of novels (34 at last count!) and non-fiction books (18!) to his name, some of which have lingered in my TBR for years.

The Daughters of Mars, which was published in 2012, is a powerful novel about two sisters from rural NSW who are nurses during the Great War. I extracted it from my shelves to take with me on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi and found it the perfect holiday read. At more than 500 pages of densely packed prose, it kept me entertained for an entire week, which meant I really didn’t need to take any other reading material with me.

The book is one of those proper epics that traverses continents, hemispheres and world history, and tells the story, not only of sibling rivalries, family obligations and small-town jealousies, but of what it was like to go to the other side of the earth to nurse the men so horribly maimed and injured, first in the Dardanelles, then on the Western Front. Keneally brings to life so much of that brutal conflict, I found myself grimacing in places, wiping tears away at others. Yet this book is never soppy or sentimental.

Sister act

Initially, the two sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, have quite a strained relationship. When the book opens, their mother, who has endured an agonising battle with cancer, has died at home, where the pair of them have taken it in turns to offer palliative care. But there are suspicions that Naomi euthanised her using an overdose of morphine that Sally stole from the local hospital in which she works. Yet this “crime” is never discussed openly between the sisters, and this guilty secret hangs over their relationship for the entire length of the book.

But thrown together in war-torn Europe, the Durances learn to depend upon one another in ways they would never have had to back home, and their  cool relationship thaws to one of friendship and love. If that makes The Daughters of Mars sound overly heart-warming, let me assure you that it never quite feels that way.

While there is some romance (each of them meets potential life partners during their years abroad), this is not a saccharine read. Indeed, any leanings towards soppiness is tempered by the brutality they must confront on the hospital ship, where soldiers maimed during the failed campaign at Gallipoli are brought on board for treatment (or to die), and later in the emergency field hospitals and clearing stations near the Western Front, where the injuries treated are more horrific than anyone could ever imagine, thanks largely to the use of gas — tear gas, chloropicrin, phosgene and chlorine, for instance — which burned eyes and airways.

There was a new gas now — mustard gas. It did not cripple the membranes and crimp the alveoli. It burned all membranes instead. It burned the eyes, the face, the mucous membranes and the walls of the lung. The mustard victims arrived at the gas ward stripped naked by the orderlies in reception and carried on a clean stretcher in a clean blanket. For the oily vapours of the chemical which had entered their clothing could burn them through fabric. […] The nurses did what could be done to help the naked and blistered, grasping men to gargle out the poison, to wash it from their noses and eyes. But the bodies of the gassed themselves exuded the poison, and every quarter of an hour nurses must go outside and take the fresh air and cough their throats clear of the communicated venom.

Throughout the novel, medical procedures and treatments are described in exacting — and visceral — detail, which helps to make the carnage, the turmoil and the trauma so vivid. The fact that both sisters are constantly aware of their own mortality is also an important element of the story, for they survive the sinking of their hospital ship and later lose newly made friends and colleagues to all manner of illness and injury. It makes their own ongoing survival seem such a miracle: why are they spared when so many others have not been?

A Great War epic

The Daughters of Mars is a wide-ranging epic that spans the length of the Great War, but what makes it different to other war fiction is its focus on what it was like to be a volunteer nurse far from home during a conflict we only ever seem to read about from a man’s perspective. It’s warm and intimate, and the female voices ring true at every turn.  It’s definitely a worthy addition to that great canon of literature about the First World War.

Finally, I have to mention the ending, which seems to attract a rather mixed reaction from those I know who have read this book. Of course, I’m not going to outline what happens here, but let me say this: I liked it. It has lingered in my mind ever since, and I think that’s a  good sign that it has worked. Many others won’t agree.

For other takes, please see Lisa’s review on ANZ LitLovers and Karen’s review on Booker Talk.

This novel is published in the UK, US and Canada.

I chose it as my book of the month for Waterstones.

This is my 25th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Frances Itani, Harper Collins, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Tell’ by Frances Itani

Tell

Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 321 pages; 2014.

The aftermath of the Great War on the residents of a small village in Canada is the subject of France’s Itani’s latest novel, Tell, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I read it back-to-back with William Trevor’s Love and Summer, and couldn’t help but see the similarities between them. Both are gentle, comforting, slow-paced reads, about people quietly getting on with their lives in a small, close-knit community.  Indeed, in KevinfromCanada’s review of Tell, he suggests the book is a Canadian version of the Irish village novel in which  “a collection of ordinary people try to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war”.

Perhaps the only major difference — aside from setting and era — is that Itani’s book has a slightly more complicated structure, because it interleaves two main narrative threads instead of focusing on  just a single story.

Small-town life

Tell spans just a couple of months — November 1919 to January 1920 — and is set in Deseronto, a small town in Ontario on the edge of a bay.

Here, we meet Kenan, a young shell-shocked soldier, who has returned from the war badly injured. He has a dead arm, has lost the sight in one eye and his face is terribly disfigured. He is too traumatised to leave the house, despite this wife, Tress, offering as much support and comfort as she can muster. The book follows their individual struggles to keep their marriage alive despite the fact that the war has changed both of them — physically and psychologically — forever.

The  second storyline focuses on Kenan’s aunt and uncle, who also live in the village. Am and Maggie have been married for a long time, but their relationship has “stalled” in the sense that they barely have a thing to say to one another. Am seeks solace in his work maintaining the village clock tower and keeping his nephew company, while Maggie spends time with her new friends — an outgoing woman called Zel, and an Eastern European refugee called Luc — both of whom she met through the village choir. It is her relationship with choir master Luc, in particular, which threatens to destroy the fragile state of her marriage.

Family connections

While these two storylines are distinct, they are not separate. Itani fleshes out the relationships and links between the two couples to create a sense of family and shared history, almost as if they represent a microcosm of the village itself.

Not much happens plot wise except to move towards the choir’s annual New Year’s Eve concert, although even that is not the real climax of the novel, which ends with a revelation about a secret long-held by Am and Maggie. But the novel works in terms of the well-drawn characters, for it is their quiet conversations, their actions, the roles they play in village life and their interactions with each other that gives the reader a reason to keep turning the pages.

Sometimes, however, I felt the music element of the novel — the choir’s rehearsals and the performance itself — were slightly overworked, although I did enjoy the way in which Maggie’s rediscovery of her love for music helped her reconnect with emotions she had buried long ago. Her chance encounter with opera singer Dame Nellie Melba in Toronto before the war is beautifully drawn, if not quite believable.

I also struggled with the revelations at the end. While heartbreaking, they bordered on a sentimentality that seemed at odds with the rest of the novel. But these are minor quibbles.

Tell is a lovely, quietly devastating book that focuses on small moments but never loses sight of the bigger picture: that we must all take responsibility for our actions; that life, despite its many challenges, heartaches and sorrows, is what we make of it; and that failing to deal with the past can sometimes come back to haunt us in unforeseen and tragic ways.

I read this book as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. It is currently only available in Canada but will be published in the UK on 6 January, 2015.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting, war

‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

Alonglongway

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 304 pages; 2005.

It is 1915 and the Great War has just begun. Ireland, with the promise of Home Rule in its sights, agrees to send its own to fight for the nation.

Seventeen-year-old Willie Dunne, who desperately wants to please his loyalist father, a much respected member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, joins the Army because at 5ft 6in he is too short to join the force.

But when he came home and told his father, the big, blank, broad face of the policeman wept in the darkness. And then his three sisters, Maud, Annie and Dolly, lit the candles in the sitting-room and they all felt part of the tremendous enterprise because Willie was going to be in it, and they were proud and excited, though it might last a few weeks at most, because the Germans were known to be only murderous cowards.”

Willie’s regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, is sent to the muddied rat-strewn trenches of Belgium to fight for King and Country. Amid the mayhem, the bullets and the blood, Willie and his fellow soldiers eke out a harrowing existence, clinging to life by the flimsiest of threads.

During a brief sojourn home on some well-earned leave Willie finds himself caught up in the political events of the 1916 Easter Uprising. Troubled by what he sees, he begins to question whether he – and the rest of his regiment – have become the enemy of the Irish rebels. When he mentions these concerns in a letter home his father disowns him.

What follows is a heartbreaking account of one young man’s realisation that there is more to life than pleasing one’s father – and one’s country.

I had tears coursing down my cheeks as I read sections of this book filled as it is with moments of such desperate sadness. To know that Willie had endured so much — the  terror and violence and madness of the trenches — only to return to a country that had undergone a bloody revolution and no longer felt like his was very emotional. Coupled with a melancholy romance with Gretta, his childhood sweetheart, this book is a true “weepy”. But don’t let that put you off.

Sebastian Barry’s writing, so wonderfully lyrical and poignant (not surprising given that he is also a poet), is a joy to read. It is rich with the Dublin vernacular, not just in the quoted speech of the characters, but in the telling of the story itself. This makes the story come truly alive in ways that a more distant, staid narrative would not have achieved.

I adored A Long, Long Way on so many levels: its eloquent conversational prose; its ability to move a sometimes jaded reader; and its themes – the futility of war, Irish politics and how one young man learns to think for himself.

Very much reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s much lauded All Quiet on the Western Front, this book, which was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is a devastating read with a clear, bright ring of truth. I highly recommend it if you wish to read some First World War fiction that has a slightly different slant — that of the Irish soldier caught between two wars.