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

Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, London, Publisher, Setting, USA, war

‘The Lives of Stella Bain’ by Anita Shreve

Stella-Bain

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 272 pages; 2013.

I’ve read a lot of Anita Shreve in my time (12 books in total and all reviewed here), but it’s been a while since I last dipped into one of her novels — for no other reason than too many titles by other authors have been competing for my time. So, after recently finishing Anne Tyler’s rather marvellous A Spool of Blue ThreadI was in the mood for something similar and Shreve immediately sprang to mind.

I like Shreve’s work because it mixes journalistic realism with great storytelling: she tends to eschew literary flourishes for simple, yet elegant, prose. Her female characters are always strongly drawn. They’re often ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which test them on all kinds of levels, whether that be physical, emotional or psychological. And she’s not afraid to explore moral or ethical dilemmas, or make her characters do unexpected — and sometimes unwise — things. She’s also very skilled at creating the intimate details of families.

A woman with amnesia

The Lives of Stella Bain, published a couple of years ago, is the author’s 18th novel. It’s set during World War One and tells the story of Stella Bain, an American who volunteers to work in the makeshift hospitals on the battlefields of France.

One day she wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of who she is or why she’s there. She thinks her name is Stella Bain, but she cannot be sure, and she knows that she can drive an ambulance and is an exceptional artist. Everything else, however, is a mystery.

When given some leave, she heads to London convinced that the clue to her identity lies with the Admiralty. But not long after her arrival she begins to feel overwrought. She’s taken in by a young woman, Lily Bridge, who is married to Doctor Augustus Bridge, a surgeon who specialises in cranial surgery. He is also experimenting with “talk therapy” to help his patients.

This is all rather fortuitous for Stella, because Dr Bridge is able to help her, over quite a long period of time, to recover her past. When she finally recalls her true identity, she heads back to the US to re-establish contact with her family…

Far from predictable

This might all sound rather straightforward, or even predictable, but Shreve throws in a few curveballs by making Stella’s past history a little dubious — she once had an affair, for instance — and there are questions over her reasons for fleeing the States and heading to France long before the US had even joined the war. What is she running from — and why?

I’m not going to give away the answer to that here, obviously, but long-time Shreve fans may be interested to know that “Stella” is a character from one of Shreve’s earlier novels — the historical drama All He Ever Wanted — which adds an extra dimension to the story. Of course, it’s not necessary to have read that book, but it does provide a rather nice a-ha-penny-dropping moment if you have.

While the story could be viewed as being about a woman with amnesia, it actually goes a lot deeper than that: it’s about love and war; shell shock and emotional damage; psychotherapy and the fragile relationships between doctors and patients; what it’s like to work on the battlefields helping people who perhaps cannot be helped; and the importance of identity to our lives.  And mid-way through it turns into a rather intriguing court case that turns Stella’s story into a fight for something more important than herself.

All in all, I found this book a real treat. Yes, it’s too reliant on coincidence; yes, it occasionally veers worryingly close to sentimentality; and yes, the present tense narrative can be a little wearing. But on the whole it’s a well crafted story about a plucky woman refusing to give up her search for meaning when the odds are so clearly stacked against her. It’s also a fascinating insight into the effects of shell shock on a non-combatant, a subject I’ve not come across in fiction before.

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.

Allen & Unwin, Ashley Hay, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Setting

‘The Railwayman’s Wife’ by Ashley Hay

Railwaymans-wife

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin UK; 307 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Australian author Ashley Hay’s second novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, is a gentle, elegiac read about universal themes — love and loss, marriage and grief, memory and forgetting — in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Damaged people

Set on the NSW coast at Thirroul in 1948, the book focuses on three main characters, all of them damaged in some way: Annika Lachlan, the railwayman’s wife of the title, who is widowed early on in the novel and now faces the prospect of raising her 10-year-old daughter alone; Roy McKinnon, a poet who is shell-shocked by the war and no longer able to find solace in words; and Frank Draper, a doctor, who was present at the liberation of one of the Nazi concentration camps and is plagued by guilt because he could not save those he found.

The story spans a year in the life of these characters as they set about adjusting to changed circumstances. But the novel’s main focus is on Annika, who must face two new challenges: coming to terms with the loss of her husband, Mac, and going to work for the first time. Her job, however, is one from which dreams are made: she becomes the sole librarian at the Railway Institute.

She thumbs at the ledgers then, the card files, the neat stacks of paper ranged in the neat wooden trays — a strange topography for her to learn; where things are recorded, how things are traced. She glances at the names of the library’s borrowers, names from church, from Isabel’s school, from conversations in the street. The lady who owns the dress shop has been borrowing Penguin classics. Mrs Padman, Mrs Bower, Mrs Floyd — their husbands all crossed out of the register; probably Mac has been crossed out like that now too. The two owners of the rival shoe shops had both requested a manual of railway signs — how peculiar is that? Her fingers flick towards L for Lachlan: Ani, Isabel — and Mac. And there it is, the list of every book he’s ever borrowed, the line now through his name, the terrible sense of a thing reckoned complete and unalterable.

Dreamy and languid

The Railwayman’s Wife is one of those dreamy, languid books that slips down as easy as hot chocolate. Nothing remarkable happens in it — there’s no real plot other than following Ani’s life for a year — and yet I found myself completely caught up in the story.

There’s an aching sense of loss and melancholia throughout, helped in part by Hay’s limpid prose, but also by the way in which Ani’s memories of her courtship and marriage are interleaved (in alternate chapters) with her present day experiences,  filling the story with poignant reference points. This is also helped by the men’s reactions — of trying to learn to live again in the shadow of a war they wish to forget — which are pitch perfect.

I loved the setting, too — the beauty of the coast, the noise of the railyards — which becomes almost a character in its own right. And the constant literary references — the library Ani works in, the importance of reading to her (and to Mac), the poet struggling to find his voice again — are a treat. There are, in fact, many references to D. H. Lawrence — he actually wrote Kangaroo in Thirroul when living there in 1922 — and W. B. Yeats.

Finally, can I just say something about the cover, which is totally ruined by the horrid woman’s head at the top? It makes this book look like genre fiction, which it is not, and I’m sure many people will simply overlook it in a book shop because “it doesn’t look like my sort of thing”. And yet this is a truly lovely, heartfelt book about what it is to be alive in a world that offers hope — if you choose to find it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Chris Womersley, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Bereft’ by Chris Womersley

Bereft_paperback

Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 340 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Chris Womersley’s Bereft is a beautifully realised tale about a Great War soldier returning to his homeland to right a terrible injustice done to him and his murdered sister some ten years earlier. It’s occasionally billed as a crime novel, but I think it’s more akin to literary fiction. Whatever you call it, it’s a terrific read — emotional, involving and thought-provoking.

A claustrophobic time

Bereft is set in 1919 in rural New South Wales. The Spanish flu epidemic is in full swing, and borders between states are closed to stop the spread of the contagion.

In this claustrophobic and occasionally terrifying world, we meet Quinn Walker. Quinn has returned from the Great War, where he served in France and Turkey. He is beset by painful coughing fits from having been gassed and has an ugly scar along his jawline. “You should do something about your face. Cover it up perhaps?” a stranger tells him. “You are frightening the children, you know?”

But there is one child that Quinn does not frighten — and her name is Sadie Fox. She is 12 and has recently been orphaned. She’s hiding out in the hills in an old shack awaiting the arrival of her older brother who went to war. She befriends Quinn and urges him to hide out with her. That’s because Quinn can’t show his face in town — and it is nothing to do with the scar on his jaw.

Laying ghosts of past to rest

In the short prologue to this book, we learn that Quinn was accused of murdering his younger sister in 1909. But before he could be arrested he fled the town — and he has been on the run ever since. He knows that many of the townsmen, including his uncle and his father, want him to hang for the crime.

To put things right, a decade on, he needs to get his mother on side and to confess to her what he knows. But his mother is now dying of influenza and has been quarantined in the family home. The only person who visits her inside the house is her doctor. Her husband, fearful of infection, is living elsewhere (he stands on the veranda and speaks to her through her open bedroom window when he visits).

Quinn, feeling he has nothing to lose, slips into his mother’s bedroom and so begins the process of reconciling the past with the present. His mother initially thinks she is hallucinating — “You resemble my son” — but soon comes to realise that Quinn, thought dead on the battlefield (there is a telegram to prove it), has returned.

Quinn’s tragic story then unfolds via a series of secret conversations with this mother and more personal conversations with bold-as-brass Sadie. And these, in turn, are interlaced with flashbacks to his terrible time at war, memories from his carefree childhood and the events that happened on the day of his sister’s murder.

Restrained and eloquent prose

There’s a quiet, understated style to Womersley’s writing. But despite the restraint of his prose, there’s something quite moving about the way in which he depicts Quinn’s predicament, caught between wanting to clear his name and not wanting to hurt his mother, and all the while coming to terms with the terrible things he witnessed at war, the grief he still feels for his sister and the pain of being ostracised by his family.

And his relationship with the mysterious, witch-like Sadie is beautifully captured. She’s a wonderful character — quirky and brave and resolutely independent — who doubles for the sister Quinn once lost.

Of course, as with most Australian novels, the narrative is strongly tied to the landscape and there are vivid descriptions of the scenery and the wildlife and of the “crackle and hum of the bush”. But, for me, the book’s focus on the war and its personal aftermath is its greatest strength, because Womersley so perfectly captures Quinn’s sense of dislocation, his physical and mental torment, and his struggle to keep going when it would be easier to put an end to it all.

Bereft was longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award and the CWA Gold Dagger, and shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year, the 2011 Miles Franklin Award, the ASL Gold Medal for Literature and the Ned Kelly Award for Fiction. It won the 2011 ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the 2011 Indie Award for Best Novel.