ANGELES — Thomas Keneally has always been a novelist
who writes and lives in the big sweep of epic history.
took on the end of the First World War in "Gossip
From the Forest," the U.S. Civil War in
"Confederates," and the Eritrean War of
Independence in "To Asmara." He won the Booker
Prize for "Schindler’s List," his account of
one good German saving lives during the Holocaust. In
"The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," he told a
story of racism and violence set amid his native
Australia’s founding as an independent nation in 1901.
the same time, Keneally, as a leader of the Australian
Republican Movement, has been working for decades to cut
ties to the British Commonwealth and reestablish his
country as a completely independent state. So it comes
as little surprise to find Keneally taking up the themes
of history and national identity again in "The
Daughters of Mars," his new novel (Atria, $28,
August) about two nurses who join the Australian
military in World War I.
World War I is such a fountain of national myths, I
decided to focus on the physical damage and the people
who dealt with it," Keneally said by telephone from
novel is based, in large measure, on real -life journals
Keneally tracked down in Australian libraries: "A
lot of the nurses, especially, were good keepers of
Daughters of Mars" is an epic, sweeping book and in
Britain (where it was published last fall) the
77-year-old Keneally received the kind of rave reviews
that would launch the career of an author half his age.
novel tells the story of sisters Sally and Naomi
Durrance. As volunteer nurses, they are sent off to the
Dardanelles, where Australian troops face the Turks at
Gallipoli. We see not the battle but its aftermath on
the bodies of the men who come under the sisters’
a cot before them now lay a man whose wound once
unbandaged showed a face that was half steak, and no
eyes," Keneally writes.
the women witness the carnage on the Western Front,
where thousands upon thousands of young men were
swallowed up in battles that seemed to go on without
had no idea the war would end in 1918, and they thought
everyone they knew would be obliterated," Keneally
says. "They had seen so much damage, they didn’t
believe anyone could ultimately survive."
from the war, the nurses, stretcher-bearers and doctors
— and the soldiers themselves — were expected to
carry on without complaint. It was a half century before
the term "post-traumatic stress" became part
of the popular lexicon, as Keneally knows all too well.
at the end of World War II, when I saw blokes come back,
they were expected to just pick up their lives,"
Keneally says, recalling his youth in Australia.
"Including fellows who had been POWs with the
Japanese for years."
now, Keneally has spent a half century writing about war
and violence and its effect on ordinary people. Asked
what he’d learned from his previous 28 novels and
applied to this one, Keneally answered:
you start a novel you tend not to pay attention to your
previous books," he said. "To an extent, you
hope your book will be both the child of your previous
work, and a better child. You hope that this will be the
child that will validate your parenthood."
little doubt, "The Daughter of Mars" does