From the author of the book behind Schindler’s List, Thomas Kenneally turns his attention to the First World War in his latest novel The Daughters of Mars. Two estranged sisters from Australia, Naomi and Sally Durance, sign up to be nurses in the war. They quickly find a group of close-knit friends and experience the war from start to finish, facing disaster both as nurses and as women along the way. What follows is a tale not only narrating a different side to the First World War but also a tale of two sisters who come to find each other again.
The world is currently remembering the centenary of the start of the First World War, and Kenneally’s The Daughters of Mars is definitely in good taste. Despite being a rather hefty 520 pages long, Kenneally accurately and vividly brings to life not only terrible conflicts such as Gallipoli and the Battle of the Somme but also the trials that nurses faced when inundated with wounded soldiers. Kenneally displays his talent for historical fiction well, if occasionally at the expense of fleshing out his characters.
Despite the title (why Kenneally chose this title rather escaped my mind whilst reading the book), one of the few failings of this novel is its lack of detail about the central sisters. Beyond their relative detachment and their determination during the war, we see very little of their personalities or their thoughts, with the result that the tragedies that occur in the novel, though heart-rending because of their severity, become generalised and even a little detached.
This is not to say, however, that Kenneally’s decision to provide two different endings to the novel is any less frustrating. It’s true that the reader does care about the characters despite their ghost-like qualities, and as such being left with two alternative endings is without doubt the most annoying conclusion to a book that I’ve ever encountered. Kenneally’s decision to provide a relatively “happy” conclusion to a novel about war leaves us without any closure. I’d much rather have had a sad, conclusive ending than be left wondering about the outcome of the sisters’ involvement in the war.
For 510 pages or so, The Daughters of Mars is excellent – emotional and enthralling without being too sentimental or too heavy-going. Yet the ending makes this book something of a disappointment given Kenneally’s reputation with Schindler’s Ark. However, if you don’t mind inconclusive endings, The Daughters of Mars is an absorbing read for any fan of historical fiction.
by Julia Molloy
tagged in julia molloy