Thursday, 28 June 2012

Event: Morning Tea with Tom Keneally

We were treated last Friday to a visit from Australia’s inveterate storyteller, Tom Keneally, here at Shearer’s to discuss his new novel Daughters of Mars over morning tea. Tom joked that he’s written so many books now that he needs to check the cover before he begins an event to make sure he’s speaking about the right one. Daughters of Mars is his 29th book!

Daughters of Mars is a World War I novel written from the perspective of the nurses rather than the soldiers. The story begins in the Macleay Valley of NSW with two sisters, Sally and Naomi Durance. Both are nurses, one leaving to find a new life in the big smoke of Sydney and the other staying at home, juggling work with caring for their aged parents.

When The Great War begins they volunteer, both of them hiding a dark secret concerning their mother’s mysterious death. The war brings them first to Egypt, and Tom spoke about painting a picture of wartime Cairo, with the sisters climbing the pyramids in the moonlight and dinners in Alexandria.

But in Gallipoli the Durance sisters witness first hand the worst the war has to offer. Tom spent a long time speaking about meaty shrapnel wounds and faces burnt from mustard gas, and while it was a little early in the morning, he spoke so eloquently that everyone was fascinated and hanging on his every word. Listening to Tom tell a story is such a wonderful experience and he’s an effortless speaker, often chuckling to himself with his charming belly laugh.

Tom was inspired to write Daughters of Mars after reading the journals of two Australian nursing sisters written during the Great War, and found an interesting story emerge from these diaries about the status of women at that time and how they had to stand up for themselves. He mentioned Florence Nightingale and how she legitimised nursing, but in the military structures often nurses were forced to do skivvy work and weren’t permitted to treat the men directly, just as Naomi and Sally are when they’re in Gallipoli.

With a quick nod to Tom’s skiing partner, Bryan Brown, who also came to the morning tea to hear him speak, Tom then took us to France, telling us about a young soldier in the novel who had been wounded, and being treated by the younger sister Sally, unable to confront the devastating trauma that he’s endured.

And while it’s a novel about war, there’s also an element of love, with both sisters finding love on the battlefield. But these women are reminded by the continual arrival of soldiers that their men can’t escape this Great War that all of young mankind at the time seem to be falling victim. 

Daughters of Mars is a novel with immense scope: covering heroes and cowards, men and women, the changing face of medicine, conscription, sibling love and so much more. An hour wasn’t enough for him to cover everything and so Tom concluded by saying - ‘For once I won’t tell you what happens, read on!’

If you weren’t able to make it to morning tea with Tom, we have lots of signed copies of Daughters of Mars still available in the store. 

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