ElCicco #CBR5 Review #45: The Daughters of Mars: A Novel by Thomas Keneally

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The Daughters of Mars, by Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, is a World War I novel told from the perspective of two Australian sisters who serve as nurses both at Gallipoli and later in France. This is not just the story of the war, however; it is also the story of the two sisters and their uneasy relationships with their family, their comrades and each other, and the effect that war has on them. Historical lit fans, particularly those who are familiar with WWI lit, will see that Keneally really did his homework for this novel. His attention to historical fact and detail is impressive. Overall, however, I felt the tale being told lacked oomph. The main characters were somewhat flat, I didn’t feel a bond to them, and the final resolution left me dissatisfied.

Naomi and Sally Durance are the narrators of this novel. Older sister Naomi left home in the Australian boondocks to work in a city hospital as soon as she was able. Sally also became a nurse but chose to live at home and work at the local hospital, helping her father care for their mother, who is dying quite painfully of cancer. We learn from the first pages of the story that when their mother died, both girls were there and that Sally intended to give her mother an overdose of morphine as a mercy killing but it appears that Naomi took the initiative and did it for her. The two sisters never discuss what happened and Sally has conflicted feelings — guilt over planning to kill her mother, gratitude that Naomi did it, and resentment that Naomi seems so calm, cool and collected about it. When the opportunity to volunteer as nurses at war arises, both sisters independently decide to go and wind up traveling to Gallipoli together with the other nurse volunteers.

Once the story moves to Gallipoli, it’s like Keneally pulls out his list of Every Horrible Thing that Happened in the War and goes to town. (If you aren’t familiar with the battle of Gallipoli, in which Australian troops were massacred by the Turks, do yourself a favor and watch Peter Weir’s superb film Gallipoli. It is gut-wrenching and beautiful and you will be utterly devastated at the end.) Sally and Naomi are stationed on a hospital ship off the shore of the battle. They can hear and see the shelling, and when the waves of wounded come aboard, the doctors and nurses are overwhelmed by the number and extent of the injuries and by their lack of preparation for it all. Later the ship is torpedoed and sinks, and Keneally gets to describe the horrors of watching people and war horses die horrible deaths at sea. When the survivors are placed on an island to work at the hospital there, Keneally shows us the stupidity of high command and sexism in the hospital environment. He also makes sure to cover the psychological effects of war on the wounded when Naomi travels back to Australia on a ship of men both physically and psychologically maimed by battle. And then it’s on to the Western Front with trench warfare, gas attacks, the treatment of conscientious objectors, the Spanish flu and strong women who try to run their own voluntary hospital while butting heads with British command.

I don’t object to the historical detail. I actually find it very interesting and accurate. The problem is that over this historical picture, we are supposed to be drawn in to the unfolding relationship between Sally and Naomi, who are trying to become friends and, well, sisterly to each other. And each sister has a love interest, even though they are known for being standoffish girls. One falls for a Quaker and the other for an artist/soldier. I was mildly interested in these plot lines but I simply never felt a powerful connection to either sister. I think part of the problem is the lack of character development. We are told that the sisters aren’t close but there’s nothing about their childhood to show how that came about. And their feelings for each other and for their love interests seems tepid even when we are being told that they are becoming closer or falling in love or whatever. 

If the reader is at all familiar with World War I literature, he/she will know that an unhappy ending looms ahead. It’s simply unavoidable (read All Quiet on the Western Front or the war poets, or go watch the above-mentioned Gallipoli). I think Keneally could have produced a very powerful ending to his tale but he equivocates. He provides two endings, and each made me think “Oh, that’s too bad” instead of “Oh, God, WHY???” In my opinion, a WWI novel should end with you feeling the “Oh, God, WHY” way. While Keneally is quite thorough in including just about every kind of tragedy that could have happened in the course of the war, and there is abundant suffering and senseless death, in the end the story lacked the sort of punch that the subject matter deserves.

 

  

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review #35:Pure by Andrew Miller

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Set in 18th-century Paris on the eve of the revolution, Pure is the fictional tale of the destruction of les Innocents cemetery and its church (structures which really existed and were destroyed). The main character is the engineer hired to oversee the project, Jean-Baptiste Baratte. He is an idealistic young man, a fan of Voltaire who once conceived of a utopia called Valenciana, where “… economics and industry were threaded together to the benefit and improvement of all. The king’s minister Lafosse has hired Baratte to remove the bodies and purify the environment that has poisoned the air, water and food in the surrounding neighborhood. Lafosse tells Baratte, “It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.” As Jean-Baptiste works to purify les Innocents, greater transformations are occurring around him and also within him. The question might be whether anything is really purified in the end and whether the means of purification aren’t themselves quite polluted in some way.

Baratte finds himself surrounded by a large and colorful group of characters once he moves to Paris. His landlords, the Monnards, have a beautiful daughter who is deeply troubled by the destruction of the cemetery. The church organist Armand becomes a friend who supports the destruction even though it means the end of his livelihood. LeCoeur, his old friend from their days together at the mines at Valenciennes and co-creator of “Valenciana,” is recruited to help with the project and provide laborers from the mines. There is a strange and reclusive priest (who reminded me just a bit of Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre); Dr. Guillotin, who is interested in the disinterred bodies; and several women whose interactions with Baratte change their lives completely — Jeanne, the sexton’s granddaughter, Marie the maid, and the prostitute Heloise.

Baratte starts his project with great enthusiasm and idealism. In his mind, “…destroying the cemetery of les Innocents is to sweep away in fact, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past.” But as the project proceeds over the course of the year, a number of problems develop that corrupt Baratte’s enthusiasm. The work in the cemetery pits is filthy, depressing and dangerous. The excavations seem to have a deleterious effect on both the miners and residents of the neighborhood, and Baratte himself is physically harmed as a result of the work. Moreover, this is a time when political and mob violence are on the rise and incendiary slogans appear on the streets. Eventually, Baratte’s reflections change from utopian dreams of the future to musings on violence and its inevitability.

This is a fine piece of historical fiction. It begins and ends at Versailles, showing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways the changes occurring in France and the rising tide of revolution. The story of Baratte himself is compelling as well, showing youth’s loss of innocence and idealism in the face of an increasingly unfair and violent reality.

Malin’s #CBR5 Review #100: The Chocolate Rose by Laura Florand

Jolie Manon’s father was one of the very top chefs of France, before his restaurant lost it’s third Michelin star, and he had a stroke. Now Jolie is trying to coax him back into greatness, with a cookbook featuring several of his most famous recipes, although her father is cranky and despondent and refuses to be seen in public. Of course, she can’t tell her father that they’re being sued, by his former employee, now a star chef in his own right. Jolie needs to go to the Côte d’Azur to negotiate some sort of compromise. She’s worried that news of the lawsuit is going to make her father have a relapse.

Gabriel Delange has a three star restaurant in Provence, but still can’t believe that his old nemesis, Pierre Manon, has the gall to publish a cook book where at least a third of the recipes were invented by Gabriel, while he worked himself nearly to death to secure Manon the coveted third star, sacrificing his health and losing his girlfriend. Gabriel is furious to realise that Manon won’t even face him personally, but sends his youngest daughter to negotiate. He’s shocked to realise that his old nemesis had a stroke, but still can’t forgive him. He knows that if he forces the issue, the old man may get sicker. Maybe he can blackmail the beautiful daughter into making a deal on her father’s behalf?

See what I thought about this creative modern re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast on my blog.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #28: The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley

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The Spy Who Loved is the biography of Polish socialite Christine Skarbek who became British spy Christine Granville during World War II. While Christine’s life is fascinating in and of itself, this biography also reveals the difficult road of women who served in non-traditional roles during the war as well as highlighting Poland’s tragic history in the 20th century.

Mulley has clearly done an enormous amount of research on her subject, who certainly didn’t make it easy. Granville left very little behind, and the men who served with her and loved her made a pact not to reveal details of her life and to protect her memory after her death. Mulley tracked down sources written by contemporaries and was able to access personal archives as well as interview some who knew her. When her sources differ on the details of an event, Mulley goes to great pains to present the reader with all the conflicting stories before offering her own opinion as to what really happened. For example, it’s not clear whether or not Ian Fleming and Christine were acquainted or involved with one another, and perhaps Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale is based on Christine. Or not. One of my criticisms of this book is that it gets bogged down in details that could have been relegated to a footnote. Another is that the writing is sometimes repetitive. As a result, the story can drag along.

The best chapters are those that deal with Christine in action. When the war broke out in Poland, she was in South Africa with her husband. They made their way to England and Christine was the first woman involved in British special operations (spy stuff). Her goal was to get back to Poland to fight the Nazis and win back Poland’s freedom. The missions she supported were thrilling to read about. It was also interesting to note that because Christine was in Poland on behalf of Britain, the Poles who supported the government-in-exile were suspicious of her and wouldn’t work with her. This led to frustrating complications for Christine that had an impact on her work throughout the war.

As the Nazis conquered Eastern Europe, Christine in her lover/lifelong friend Andrzej Kowerski managed to keep ahead, working their way through the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean before reaching Cairo. Honestly, this section of the book is somewhat tedious but it does show how Christine struggled to get placed on missions despite her exemplary and daring track record. Eventually, she wa
s sent to occupied France, where the story gets very interesting again. By all accounts, Christine had a magnetic personality, not just winning over many men as lovers, but also talking her way around the Gestapo and even charming their guard dogs. She was a fearless and courageous patriot, who seemed to thrive on danger and adventure.

Once the war was over, Christine’s treatment by the British was shameful. She struggled to get citizenship, even when being offered some of the highest service awards for her contribution to the war effort, and she never really found meaningful work that would make the most of her formidable talents. Her tragic death in 1952 came just as she was about to move from London back to Europe.

While I enjoyed parts of this book, and I think that Christine’s story is amazing and inspiring, those who would like to learn more about women’s roles in intelligence during WWII might find a more accessible read in Sarah Helm’s 2006 work A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. Helm is a journalist and seems better able than historians or biographers to cut through the detail to put a readable story together (her book is longer than Mulley’s but seemed shorter to me). Plus, the women and men whose stories are featured in Helm’s book are some of the same people you meet in Mulley’s. Just not Christine.