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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Caitlin’s #CBR5 # 29: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

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In the Shadow of Blackbirds was a really creepy, sad ghost story. I’m in love with the World War I setting. That’s not even mentioning how much I love the Spiritualism movement, séances and spirit photography and table-rappers. This book seems as though it could have been written just for me, because three of the things I love are history, Young Adult fiction, and the Spiritualism movement. It’s hardly a wonder that I liked it so much.

You can read my full review here.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #16: Life After Life: A Novel by Kate Atkinson

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At over 500 pages, I expected to need the entirety of a week if not more to make it through this novel. It took me about 4 days, and would have taken less if family and work hadn’t interfered. It is truly a spellbinding novel about reincarnation, practice making perfect and going back to do it over until you get it right (if you can).

The story begins with Ursula Todd attempting to assassinate Hitler in 1930. She dies and returns to her birth in February 1911 at the family home in the English countryside. I didn’t keep count of how many times Ursula dies and reboots, but with each life/death cycle, she learns something to help her the next time around. She doesn’t exactly remember her past lives, but she experiences strong deja vu which impels her toward specific actions and away from certain dangers. Ursula’s life encompasses the two world wars and her choices in each life have implications for the lives of family and neighbors as well as herself. She transforms from a naive and somewhat dull witted Ursula to a sharp, focused and purpose-driven woman. A few of her lives were extraordinarily depressing and, now that I think of it, were lives in which she was married.

Among the constant members of her life circles are her parents and siblings, the maid and cook, her eccentric aunt Izzie and neighbors from her village. Despite the reincarnations, the family dynamics don’t really change. Father Hugh is a prosperous banker who fought in WWI, mother Sylvie married young and is still pained by the recollection of her own family’s losses, sister Pamela is a close friend while eldest brother Maurice is a pompous and aggressive lout, and younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy are loved, lovable and doted upon. Izzie’s circumstances change sometimes but her character does not. She is the free spirit who defies convention and annoys the rest of the family.

Another recurring character is Dr. Kellet, a psychiatrist who treats Ursula when she is young. The reasons for this visit change depending on Ursula’s life — either she has engaged in an action that shocks her parents or she simply behaves strangely, showing signs of what the Irish maid calls a sixth sense. It is Kellet who introduces the concept of reincarnation to Ursula and seems to provide her with genuine help.

Atkinson’s writing is colorful and detailed, and despite the repetition of Ursula’s lives, never becomes boring or predictable. The description of life in London during the blitz is fascinating and terrifying. Ursula becomes involved in the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) and is on the scene when buildings have been reduced to rubble and bodies are being recovered — a horrifying and dangerous business.

… a dress was hanging on a coat hanger from a picture rail. Ursula often found herself more moved by these small reminders of domestic life … than she was by the greater misery and destruction that surrounded them. Although when she looked at the dress now she realized there was a woman still wearing it, her head and legs blown off but not her arms. 

I was completely engrossed by this novel. The idea of having a chance to “re do” and change history for the better is attractive. As Ursula tells Teddy, “We can never get it right, but we must try.”