Tom Keneally’s World War I novel re­viewed

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

Tom Keneally

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