Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally

It is 1914 and Australia, as a Commonwealth member country loyal to the British Empire, is gearing for war.  Country nurses Naomi and Sally Durance are sisters but Naomi has moved to Sydney from their farming home to work in a  big city hospital while Sally works in the local hospital of her home town.  They are rivals, not least because their parents appear to favour Naomi in Sally’s eyes, and she Is also resentful that her elder sister is living a life she wishes for herself.  Sally is not happy to be regarded as the family spinster, consigned to the care of her dying mother while their father buries his concern in farm work, and when the call for nurses to sign up to care for any wounded in ‘the War that Will be Over by Christmas’ is issued, Sally takes her chance:  both sisters are accepted, but leave for Cairo weighed down by their mother’s death and an act of mercy in which they are both complicit:  for Sally at least, mercy weighs heavy and sleep is troubled;  even the their new, alien surroundings in Cairo fail to blot out the secret she and Naomi share -  until they are posted onto the hospital ship ‘Archimedes’ and sent to Gallipoli, that tiny Turkish peninsular where all the brave Diggers ‘each one worth ten Turks!’ were sent to scale the cliffs from the beach and win the peninsular, in theory gaining a good foothold against their Turkish adversaries.
Thus begins one of the cruellest debacles of World War One, forever deplored and enshrined in Australia and New Zealand as a Day of Remembrance:  Anzac Day.  The battle for Gallipoli is a disaster from the start, men being used as cannon fodder by inept and arrogant commanders, battling for impregnable territory defended by experienced Turkish soldiers fighting on their home ground, secure in the belief that each Turk was ‘worth ten Anzacs!’
For the sisters and their colleagues, trying to care for the floods of wounded ferried out to the ‘Archimedes’ in a constant stream is like a perpetual waking nightmare – never in their experience have they been confronted with such horror, such terrible wounds – such anguish.  Life and death become reduced to the barest essence, and overriding everything is the grief all feel for the senseless, sinful waste, the slaughter of patriotic eager young men by commanders who had inherited their ranks but not the intelligence to match, for nine months later the Gallipoli campaign is over ( ‘didn’t succeed, don’t you know)’ and all remaining troops withdrawn, only to be sent to the Western Front.
The sisters and their colleagues are sent too, plunged again into the awful mayhem of agony and destruction, but with the results of a new weapon to contend with:  poison gas.  The adage ‘War is Hell’ has never been more true.
Mr Keneally writes with great power of this terrible time in history;  his prose is starkly beautiful and his characters are vivid and all too human, especially the men Sally and Naomi eventually pledge themselves to:  the dreadful art of war has never been more finely portrayed and ‘living for the moment’ has never held more urgency.
Mr Keneally has written a literary masterwork that has been a privilege to read:  not to be missed.


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