Tom Keneally’s World War I novel reviewed
MY favourite image of Australian author Tom Keneally is a portrait by Bernd Heinrich. Keneally stands, straight and genial, in what the artist remembered as a ‘‘ pink hot tracksuit’’, stepping forward from a wash of infinite blue as if through the picture’s frame — or off one of his own pages. His left hand is on his heart. There’s nothing self-aggrandising in Keneally, as those daggy tracksuit pants affirm. But that hand on the heart underpins the passion and truth of the stories he tells: of hijacks, famines, wars, histories, in his backto-back Miles Franklin winners from 45 years ago ( Bring Larks and Heroes in 1967 and Three Cheers for the Paraclete in 1968), in the pure force of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
And there’s generosity in the step he takes towards us, the people outside the frame.
Keneally’s latest novel, The Daughters of Mars, is a big and brutal book, a new prism through which to think about World War I.
We may think we know this stuff, from fictional accounts such as Roger McDonald’s first novel 1915 or Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli and nonfiction ones such as Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli and its later companion volume, The Great War.
We know the mud, the trenches, the cold, the gas and the bullets. We know the names — the Nek, Lone Pine, Ypres, the Somme — and we know the numbers: there were 58,000 British casualties (one-third of whom died) on the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone.
Keneally switches the focus of the story from the front line to the parallel but quite divorced experience of the war nurses who ran the vast networks of operating theatres and wards, in tents and in huts, on listing ships and in grand chateaus.
This cements the reader off-stage and away from the action, which feels, in a strange way, like an honest place from which to try to ‘‘ read’’ a war: away from it, as we are in terms of time and history, yet still working to make sense of its detritus and destruction.
The instruments of Keneally’s story are two sisters, Sally and Naomi Durance, the daughters of a cow cockie from the Macleay Valley on the NSW north coast (the landscape of Keneally’s childhood) who volunteer to nurse.
Their mother is recently dead — having suffered horribly from cervical cancer — and for much of the book the sisters are propelled and defined by the ‘‘ crime’’ of her last moment.
This is a dense book, partly written in a style that edges towards shorthand.
This feels sometimes vernacular, sometimes truncated, sometimes almost hostile — until you realise how the experience of reading it mirrors the experience of a kind of shock, that sense of being beyond any chronologically definable time, and apart from the architecture of a world that makes sense. You can’t rush this read, can’t coast across its words.
Keneally draws you in and pins you as the Durance sisters and their fellow nurses face the full gamut of war, from Gallipoli up to the Western Front.
They battle sepsis, working pre-penicillin with wounds that need frequent ‘‘ irrigation’’; they confront the realities of bodies adjusting to a shortage of limbs, or a man whose whole face has been turned into ‘‘ steak’’, his left eye its only extant and useable feature.
And their story buffets you, working into your bones: you wage a three-page battle with a surgeon as he tries to save one single human being from the mess of the Dardanelles, then: Fellowes softly. And no adrenalin on board. Take him away. There was at once another boy.
The description of a torpedo attack and its aftermath — who survives, who concedes, the ebb and flow of endurance, and the utter randomness of the whole damn thing — is breathtaking and exhausting. And in its image of people broken down beyond their individual selves, their minds and memories transposable, lies the seed for the magnificent and almost magical sleight of the novel’s end.
But then, because even conflicts later tagged as ‘‘ world’’ wars do not consume every inch of that world, it’s possible to take a train to Paris, visit the galleries, walk through the Tuileries. It’s possible register the colour of a sky or the blooming of a field full of flowers. There are moments of joy, of pleasure, that make you look up from their page for a while, to arrest and savour their sensation.
Keneally is famously prolific: The Daughters of Mars is his 29th novel by some tallies; his including a history of Australia that has just reached its second volume. The Durances’ story grew from that research, sending him into the journals of nurses and stretcherbearers, the medical history of the war.
The translation into fiction of all that he uncovered is one of this novel’s finest achievements. You sense a storymaker with his manuscript pegged out and in play, dotting in tiny facts, intricate details: innovations in medical practice and anaesthetics, even the different fashions worn by Australia’s different state nurses. Here, he drops in the artistic philosophy of light; there, the surreality of travel to famous places; and then, the death Joan of Arc, in five perfect paragraphs.
The breadth and accretion of all this is dazzling, matched — and sometimes superseded — by the perfection of the intimate gestures and internal moments through which he vivifies his young women. What grief looks like as it works across somebody’s lips; how human touch feels to someone more used to swabbing and stitching.
War, writes Keneally, is ‘‘ the awful perversion of things, of sky not permitted to be sky, of air not permitted to be air’’. It is a place where trenches may be recast to resemble ‘‘ something domestic and tedious’’, but where attack must also sometimes be described as ‘‘ bliss’’.
In a 2006 celebration of Keneally’s life and work commissioned by the National Library of Australia, critic Peter Pierce described him as ‘‘ the nearest thing we have to a Balzac’’. Morality and misperception, random chance and brute force, tiny moments and cataclysmic upheavals: Keneally proffers these ingredients from inside his own frame of construction and observation, his hand on his heart.
Now, he can step back into that blue space of imagination and begin to think on which next narrative he’ll offer us, which next chapter of ourselves.
Ashley Hay’s first novel, The Body in the
Australian army nurses at Giza during World War I