Friday 13 December 2019

How love can triumph over horrors and cruelty of war

Sally and Naomi Durance are Australian sisters who volunteer as nurses during World War One. Their surname hints at one of the major themes of the novel, in which the girls' interlocking stories show that what helps us endure trauma and horror is our capacity to love and be loved.

Keneally doesn't hold back from describing the septicemia, the shell- shock, the treatment for syphilis, the operations performed with limited equipment, the effect of mustard gas on lungs and skin, the destroyed faces, the amputations.

Yet in poignant contrast to all this carnage, Sally and Naomi in their respective hospitals (first near Gallipoli, and then in France), forge transformative relationships with their fellow medical staff and with their patients.

As in his most famous novel, Schindler's Ark (which became the film Schindler's List) Keneally's main focus is the triumph of the human spirit in the face of so much grotesque experience, where the poor humans are seemingly at the mercy of erratic, punitive gods.

Deftly Keneally shows how, in our desperation to seize control, we try to guard against the arbitrariness of life and death through superstition: how at the docks, families seeing off loved ones wave "with a startling energy . . . as if there were a law that said the stronger the farewell the more certain the return".

Another theme of the novel is escape, in its many forms. One doctor organises picnics among the poppies of the Western Front. During an air-raid, matron keeps the nurses distracted by itemising their mess bills. And on the wards, banter and humour deny the horrors of physical injury.

Through their intimate relationships, the novel's characters find the strength to fend off current pain and look to the future.

And when such intimacy is warped, and one character is raped, her subsequent mental decline stands for a dysfunctional society where it is harder to secure a bed for the night if you're not married than to "tear a young fellow's head off".

The Daughters of Mars charts a terrain where boundaries become hideously blurred, and where human tenderness is the only lodestar.

Despite being familiar literary territory, Keneally's epic treatment is thought-provoking – not least in its ending, which the reviewer's code of honour prevents me from revealing.

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