The Daughters of Mars, Paperback Book
3.5 out of 5 (5 ratings)


In 1915, two spirited Australian sisters join the war effort as nurses, escaping the confines of their father's dairy farm and carrying a guilty secret with them.

Used to tending the sick as they are, nothing could have prepared them for what they confront, first in the Dardanelles, then on the Western Front.

Yet they find courage in the face of extreme danger and become the friends they never were before. And eventually they meet the kind of men worth giving up their precious independence for - if only they all survive. At once epic in scope and extraordinarily intimate, The Daughters of Mars brings the First World War to vivid life from an unusual perspective.

Profoundly moving, it pays tribute to the men and women who voluntarily risked their lives for peace.


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Showing 1 - 5 of 5 reviews.

Review by

Daughters of Mars is Thomas Keneally’s epic story of World War I as seen through the eyes of two Australian sisters, Naomi and Sally, who are nurses that enlist. Carried first to Egypt, and then to the Dardanelles to nurse men savaged by the fighting at Gallipoli. Originally they are on the hospital ship Archimedes, but eventually the army can’t resist using the hospital ship as a means to transport troops and horses to the front and they are torpedoed and sank. The sisters survive, but then are placed on the island of Lemnos and put under the control of a colonel who doesn’t think battlefield nursing is meant for women. The sisters originally have a rather strained relationship due to their sharing of a family secret but being constantly together and sharing the conditions and horrors of battlefield nursing draws them closer and they develop a friendship that strengthens their bond. Eventually they are moved on to France with Naomi in an English run hospital, Sally originally in an Australian and then transferred to a casualty clearing station. The author covers the Durance sisters war experience from 1914 to 1918 in great detail, but even at it’s most intense, there was a detachment or a distance between the reader and the events being portrayed that kept me from being totally swept away by this story.Overall, as one would expect, this is a grim but powerful book. The author doesn’t hold back in his descriptions of the horror of untreatable wounds, the lack of medical equipment, the unflinching assembly line treatment that many soldiers received. But this is also the story of two women, their longing for new horizons, their lack of preparation for the butchery that they had to deal with, their relationship with each other and with the people that they meet along the way.The Daughters of Mars is both a sweeping epic and a smaller more intimate revealing of these two woman’s lives. This was an excellent read, but a couple of quibbles kept it from getting five stars, one was the distance from the story that I felt during the reading, and the second is the divided ending of which I wasn’t a fan. However, seeing the war from this mostly medical viewpoint really brought home to me the ultimate cost in terms of human lives forever damaged and lost.

Review by

This is the story of two sisters from a dairy farm in NSW who join up at the start of WWI to nurse the wounded, first in Gallipoli and then, later, in France. Very interesting and a different perspective on the war than I am used to reading. I found the book very easy reading and although I didn't always feel connected to the main characters I enjoyed this book for what it taught me and how it made me think about things from a different angle.

Review by

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally; (4*)Thomas Keneally writes with emotional tension across the years and gender divide. This is a wonderfully good story. It is well told but really not a story so much about the great wound inflicted on the world by mad men in 1914 but the madness of men that emerged from it and continue to drain like the gangrenous fleshy wounds of boys from Gallipoli to France and beyond into the present. The women in the novel bear witness to the birth of a new madness as much as they try to heal the wounds of the old order. The misogyny of Lemnos in 1915 reverberates in Australia of 2012 when women leading, such as Sally or Naomi, Lady Tarleton or Matron Mitchie did in the novel are subject to scorn and derision by the privileged and ordinary men alike; that they are 'wrecking the joint' when in fact they are holding it together while the means to do so are redirected, prioritized and pilfered to the advance of men's causes.The central characters are Sally and Naomi Durance whose story begins on a dairy farm near Kempsey NSW. Their mother is dying painfully of cancer and their nursing knowledge makes euthanasia possible. What happens is exacerbated by a quiet sibling rivalry which brings about misunderstanding, guilt and a need for expiation. The sisters volunteer to join the small numbers of nurses allowed to go into active service. The point that the horrors of the war brings redemption as well as reconciliation between the sisters begins when there is no doubting the heroism of the nursing done on the battlefields. Tidy arrangements beforehand were no preparation for the onslaught of the wounded and civilian nursing was no preparation for the damage done by shrapnel, bullets and bomb. Gas, when it comes, is even more horrific in a novel that revolves around the effects of warfare. The horrific sinking of the Archimedes played hugely in this epic story. This was a real ship, requisitioned as a British Expeditionary Force supply ship and she actually was sunk in 1941 when she hit a mine."Sally saw the midships doorway open and tilted a few feet above the water. Protesting horses were jumping, their hooves stuttering on the last plates of steel beforehand. There were men in there, screaming at them to go and lashing their hindquarters. Mules fell gracelessly on their flanks as Archimedes’ own leaning flank loomed above them. Two nurses and some orderlies walked down the canting ship’s stairs a step or two and launched themselves. Still looking out at the sea from the rail she saw Nettice - squinting like a woman trying to recognise a face at a tea party. How had Nettice missed the lifeboats? By choice or accident? Already Sally and Honora and the remnants and population of their own shattered boat were sliding astern of Archimedes and could see a little of the great rump of the ship rising by degrees. They could at once see men dropping from the lower port side closest to the shadowy surface of the water as well as others – by choice it seemed and with the howl of their lives – throwing themselves from the upmost, portside railing. They slid down the ship’s sides. Why did they choose that? What did the rivets do to their flesh? But men were queuing for the fright and abrasions of it.'The thing will drag us under, called Honora. The bloody thing!'Sally saw Naomi swim one armed, – a true surf Amazon indeed – dragging Mitchie by the collar of her life jacket. The water was full of claims to mercy. There was a soldier with a bandaged arm dragging another whose face had no flesh. Mitchie and Naomi were not any longer in the nursing and tending business, however." "The the voices of some individuals are heard while others quietly slip away. In an age still of gallantry, the women were in the inadequate number of lifeboats because they were women but they survived because they showed the courage and tenacity usually ascribed to men on the battlefield."Like their mother both the Durance sisters would succumb to the exhaustion of being women in an Australia whose youth was tempered in the fire and emerged, whatever the history books tell us of their physical and industrious valour, emotionally wrecked.The Daughters of Mars took a bit for me to get into but I am so thankful that I stuck with it until the book drew me in and suddenly I was there along with the wounded, the nursing staff & doctors. I have read Keneally previously and am convinced that this is a much more masterful bit of writing than that of Schindler's List. I thought this a marvelous story and I highly recommend it. I have read a few books since and yet this one continues to resonate in my brain and in my heart.Did the ending bother me? I don't think that it bothered me in and of itself but I did go back and read those few pages three or four more times. And I am sure that there will be a time in the future when I will need to revisit this novel.

Review by

A disjointed though beautifully written novel about the First World War, from the perspective of two Australian nurses. I struggled with the first quarter of the book, putting it aside twice in favour of two better flowing narratives, but finally managed to finish. Thomas Keneally doesn't make this an easy read, though. There is no dialogue punctuation, which didn't overly bother me, but both Naomi and Sally are written like 'everywoman' nurses, which did - they are barely distinguishable from each other, never mind being strong enough characters to lead the story. The overpowering philosophical/poetical flavour of the narrative eventually gives way to a more typical WW1 novel, cramming in traumatic injuries, conscientious objectors, nurses' sexuality, wartime romance and the Spanish 'Flu. And the epilogue is completely unnecessary - if the author was struggling to decide the fate of his heroines, he should have left the matter open, with none of that last minute flip-flopping.

Review by

I came to this after reading many books about the Western Front written by people who were actually there, and part of me found it difficult to adjust to a modern literary treatment. It struck me suddenly – unfairly – as distasteful to turn these events into the material of a story. And so I was looking hard for some kind of thematic purpose to talking about 1914–1918 beyond just using it as a source of dramatic incident.What this book is going for is a sense of sweeping grandeur, an epic scope that reaches from dusty Australian farmsteads to the Gallipoli landings to the industrialised slaughter of the trenches. I wanted to like it, and there are some wonderful setpieces including the best shipwreck scene I can remember reading. I also (apparently unlike other reviews) quite liked the two central characters, sisters from New South Wales who join the war effort as nurses. It made a nice change to see things from this medical point of view – the war described in terms of the injuries it dealt out rather than the fighting itself, and from a female rather than a male perspective.However, the book's style sometimes militates against its own purposes. Direct speech is given without quotation marks or any other markers, so it's hard to know where it ends and where narration begins. Unfortunately this is not exploited for any stylistic effects; it just seems like the sort of wilfully confusing idiosyncrasy some authors adopt in order to seem ‘literary’, and so it annoyed me. More fundamentally I just thought the writing was a bit average. There is a very heavy reliance on dashes, both for parenthesis and to separate clauses, which results in some rather staccato, arrhythmic prose:<i>The fancier the clobber – went Honora's opinion – the less fighting the bloke had done. They had time only for a few galleries – they told themselves they would be back and would devote a day entirely to the museum. Sally found herself rehearsing – in case she met Charlie Condon soon – the names of artists. She liked David – he was easy to like – and Ingres' woman with the high-waisted gown. When they emerged from the Louvre they found the day still bright with high, streaky clouds and – though it was chilly – they walked in the Tuileries Gardens where trees were still bare.</i>That sounds like I've just taken random examples and glued them together, but it's an actual paragraph from the book.The ending is also a bit problematic, taking the <i>French-Lieutenant's-Woman</i> approach of giving you different options for how things might have worked out. Tom, there is one reality where I found this artful and beautiful, but there is another reality where I thought it was a real dereliction of duty.

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