NOVEL APPROACH: Escape to life

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First Posted: 8/18/2013

It is often said that human nature regards our most primitive need for survival based on two actions: fight or flight. But, what happens if your freedom from a life of struggle leads you to another? In Thomas Keneally’s spellbinding novel, “Daughters of Mars,” readers learn that the power of survival lies in connection.

If Keneally sounds familiar, it is most likely the result of his Booker-Prize winning novel, “Schindler’s List.” Similar to his previous award-winning novel, “Daughters of Mars” is set amidst war, traveling back to World War I this time. The novel follows sisters Naomi and Sally Durance in the wake of familial difficulties that prompt their escape.

In an effort to aide war efforts, Naomi and Sally volunteer as nurses. One of the first vivid images readers visualize regards the women waiting for their documentation: “Inside the stone drill hall was a great echo of women, a shrilling with an only partly successful contralto attempt by some matron to settle things down. Young women crowded up to take out of the hands of two confused young men — the colonel’s orderlies — a sheet of paper on which their required clothing was listed.”

While not particularly close growing up, Naomi and Sally begin to mature together even in the disillusionment of violence. Their fight for survival begins in leaving the farm, and continues forward as the plot spirals into an action-packed, yet emotional, journey. As a result, this novel is greatly female-centric, often demonstrating glimpses of the history of women serving in wartime. It is through the sisters’ compassion and courage that readers make connections to their struggles, a truly inspiring concept, which strengthens the story.

In nearly 600 pages, readers traverse the world from Egypt to France, as we follow Naomi and Sally from 1914 through 1918. In prose form, Keneally gives readers war in excellent detail — from missing limbs to emotional trauma. While we root for our leading ladies, as well as many supporting characters, Keneally does not romanticize violence. In actuality, despite the constant power play between struggle and hope, it seems survival becomes more about our ability to recognize and fight for humanity.

The conclusion of the work is unforgettable for many reasons, but most importantly because Keneally shows that for every war, there is always more than one side to a story. While deeply reflective and saddening at times, the characters manage to escape their once recurring lives in an effort to finally live a life all their own.

‘The Daughters of Mars’ by Thomas Keneally Rating: W W W W