The book was beautifully written with a prose that was easy to follow and absorb. It tells the story of a group of devoted Australian nurses, during World War I. On every page, opposites coexist: beauty and ugliness, love and hate, fidelity and betrayal, fierceness and tenderness, numbness and pain, tears and smiles, sadness and laughter, the wounded and the healed, in essence, war and peace. There was no gratuitous sex to diminish the novel’s relevance, although romance was a significant part of the story. The graphic details were especially hard to read, because of the agony portrayed, but I could not put the book down. It contained an elaborate description of war with all its futility; the loss, the injuries, the suffering, the courage, the bravery, the guilt, the shame, the horror and the stupidity of all of it, came off the page in images that were alive. This is a gifted writer. He has captured the message of war then and of wars now. Innocents are killed and punished to defend against fools who put them at risk because of their need for power.
When the book begins, two sisters, Sally and Naomi Durance, trained as nurses, watch as their mom suffers from incurable cervical cancer. When she dies, Sally is guilt-ridden. She had hidden morphine to end her mother’s life, in the event that her mother could no longer take the pain. She is convinced that her sister, Naomi, who came home from her nursing job in Sidney, in order to help out, found the stash and used it to prematurely end her mother’s suffering. Their relationship suffers.
World War I had begun. One sister had already escaped her hometown and now the other, Sally, wants to do the same. The Durance sisters, separately, enlist in the Australian war effort, as nurses. When they are stationed in the same place, their relationship develops more deeply and their strained relationship improves. The brutality, violence and horror of the war, that they witness, is often bloodcurdling, and they take us on the journey with them. We are on ships that are torpedoed, in the water when the ship sinks, we are in trenches hiding from attack, we are caring for the injured in the operating theatres that are built, comforting the wounded and grieving for their various losses, as we watch the nurses exhibiting bravery and strength they never knew they possessed. We are with them as they are abused by the officers, treated rudely by the orderlies and even attacked by reckless soldiers. War breeds dreadful behavior and conditions everywhere, but the dedication of the nurses and the soldiers is prominent on every page of the book, and they are beyond brave, with their commitment in the face of all situations, no matter how traumatic, no matter what the danger is to themselves. They rise above their own fears to help others and support the cause of their country.
In the midst of all the ghastliness, Keneally was able to include the mundane, the ordinary daily living experience, without diminishing the impact of the story. The elucidation of relationships developing in spite of the danger, and the warmth of the romantic involvements was represented, not in any way distastefully or improperly. The field of war was prominent on every page, and yet, there were also the moments of normal behavior interjected quite comfortably beside it. As difficult as it was to read, it was worth every word. The book’s title, which literally means the daughters of war, (Mars is the Roman God of War) describes a tale shaped by war’s tragedies and triumphs.