In 1915, Australian sisters Naomi and Sally Durance join the war effort as nurses, escaping the confines of their father’s dairy farm in northern NSW and taking a guilty secret with them. At first it is an adventure into a new and exciting world, but tending the sick in Australia before the war hadn’t prepared them for what they are destined to face, first in the Dardanelles and then on the Western Front.
Amid the carnage, Naomi and Sally settle into a friendship they never managed to keep in their home country. Courageous under extreme pressure and even danger, the two women and their friends work to save lives, including those of the enemy. The two women are separated again by circumstance: Naomi finds herself in a hospital set up by the eccentric Lady Tarlton near Bologne, while Sally works in a casualty clearing station close to Amiens. Each of them fall in love with an exceptional man, and plan future lives together – if only they can all survive.
This is the first novel I have read by Australian Author Tom Keneally, and I picked it up after being recommended it by another lady browsing the same section of the book store.
Naomi and Sally are both described as aloof, and certainly I did feel as if I was kept distanced from them as characters. There were times I would have liked to have known more about what they thought and more importantly felt in regards to the situations they found themselves in. Because we were being shown the world largely through their eyes, it also meant it was difficult to make an attachment to any of the secondary characters too. However, it was nice to read about the war behind the front lines through the eyes of the nurses. The historical elements of the story were exceptionally well written and allows you to get a sense of how the military machine worked without being thrown directly into the trenches.
The scenes Thomas Keneally paints are vivid and the narrative captivating. There is a nice hook at the beginning of the novel which leaves you wondering throughout and keeps you reading until the end. Without giving away any spoilers, the ending itself wasn’t exactly what I was expecting and I do feel a little cheated by it.
As the author writes before the story begins, the punctuation is scant and meant to reflect – as a tribute – the style of nurses and soldiers of the period. What this means is that there are no speech marks anywhere in the novel. Unfortunately there were times when I wasn’t sure if what was written was a thought or spoken aloud, or who by, and I had to re-read sections to figure it out. In the larger scheme of things it’s not a big problem, but it was distracting enough for me to mention it.
At 589 pages long, The Daughters of Mars is epic in scale and pays tribute to the men and women who voluntarily risked their lives to save others.