If Thomas Keneally’s expansive and brilliant novel The Daughters of Mars doesn’t remind you of an Australian version of “Downton Abbey,” I don’t know what would. This isn’t to disparage either work—especially not one from the author of Schindler’s List—but the similarities jump out from the opening pages. We have two sisters who don’t get along. We get the soldier with half his face blown off; the manor house converted into a hospital; the Spanish flu sweeping off otherwise young and healthy people; the upstanding bloke thrown in jail for no good reason and the faithful woman who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get him out; the deaths of loved characters that make you gasp for their sheer unfairness.
In The Daughters of Mars, the Durance sisters—chilly Naomi and somewhat more biddable Sally—sign on as army nurses at the beginning of World War I. We follow them on the long boat trip from Australia to the Mediterranean, where they nurse the soldiers coming in from the disaster at Gallipoli and endure the torpedoing of their hospital ship, the Archimedes. The sinking, depicted with hair-raising vividness by Keneally, will impact the sisters, their friends and lovers for the remainder of the war. For one thing, Naomi and Sally (who, it should be said, are not the daughters of an earl but of a dairy farmer from the Australian bush) finally begin to deal with a sad secret they thought they’d left behind in Australia.
Given the devastating nature of what was then known as the “war to end all wars,” Keneally’s touch is surprisingly nimble. He gives us only glimpses of the horror, but that’s sometimes enough. What he’s interested in are the ways the war affects the life choices of those who are caught up in it, and how ordinary folks rarely know they’re living through—or even making—history. The Daughters of Mars is a masterpiece that is sure to rank among Keneally’s best works.