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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.