• Simon and Schuster

Thomas Keneally‘s new novel, The Daughters of Mars, reminded me just what I liked about reading, back in the years when I was first starting to read. That was when books were so absorbing, I wanted to read them all the time: while eating, while walking, under my desk at school, under the covers with a flashlight, when I was supposed to be doing homework or cleaning my room, etc. It didn’t matter if it was the Bobbsey Twins or a biography of Queen Elizabeth or Sweet Valley High. I read indiscriminately and uncritically. I just needed to know what was going to happen next.

That doesn’t happen so much anymore. I’m not sure whether it’s because, as I got older, I learned the habit of reading “critically” and how to pick out literary devices and how they worked, which meant that I could now try to outsmart the writers, or because, as Daniel Pinkwater once said, books for kids are meant to be entertaining, while books for adults are meant to calm them down before they go to sleep. (If that’s the case, it’s tremendously unfair.) Maybe the other problem about books for adults is that many authors seem to feel they have to choose between being entertaining and being serious and literary.

In The Daughters of Mars, Keneally doesn’t bother to choose. There’s plenty of action, including one genuinely thrilling 30-page account of a shipwreck, interspersed with lovely philosophical passages that made me suspend my curiosity about what was going to happen next, just so I could pause and read them again. I carried the book with me everywhere in case I had a spare moment. I looked forward to my el ride home so I could have 45 minutes alone with it.

Simply described, The Daughters of Mars is an old-fashioned war story of the sort that has fueled thousands of books and movies, from All Quiet on the Western Front to Saving Private Ryan. It follows a small group of characters with different backgrounds and temperaments who find themselves working together through several years of war. As time rolls on, some leave, new ones are introduced, and not everyone survives.

In this case, though, the “platoon” is a group of young nurses from Australia during World War I. (Why are there not more books about war nurses? Did Testament of Youth scare everyone off?) At the center of the group are two sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance. The sisters are not close; the one thing that binds them is the guilt and shame of their unspoken conspiracy to end their mother’s suffering from cervical canter with an overdose of morphine. They are surprised to meet each other in the recruitment line in Sydney, but both are eager to escape their father’s dairy farm and take advantage of their one chance to see the wider world beyond Australia. And, as Keneally writes in the book’s very first sentence, “It was said around the valley that the two Durance girls went off but just the one bothered to come back.”

Over the course of their journey from Australia to the eastern Mediterranean, where they’ll nurse the thousands of Australian soldiers wounded at Gallipoli, the Durances meet the rest of their platoon: chatty Honora Slattery, cheerful Leonora Casement, Elsie Carradine who joined up to accompany her husband to the war, sophisticated former nightclub singer Karla Freud, their avuncular and forthright matron Marian Mitchie (who, by the way, would have some strong words for Catherine Barkley from A Farewell to Arms), and Ian Kiernan, a Quaker who joined the medical corps because his religion forbids him to bear arms. These characters, and the soldiers and patients, some of whom are quickly and indelibly sketched in only a few pages, provide most of the drama of the story. Our two heroines share a deep reserve (their hometown neighbors would call them “aloof”): Sally, whose point of view dominates the first third of the book, is an observer, too shy to dress up for a costume party, and Naomi is so poised as to be inscrutable, even to the reader. (It takes more than 100 pages before Keneally finally lets us know what she’s thinking.)

The war, of course, will shake everything up, though both sisters will remain outwardly calm and unsentimental (reflected in Keneally’s prose, which never gets very purple or hysterical). As Sally realizes after the first major crisis, “She saw herself now not as a continuous thing. She was no more than a mute core—or a pole on which rings of a particular nature could be placed. Each ring was a successive self—that was it. Her self was utterly new and needed to be learned all over.”

It’s passages like this that give Daughters of Mars the sort of depth that makes it a book for grown-ups, or, rather, the sort of thing grown-ups can mull over after they turn off the light and go to sleep. But it’s the story of the two sisters and their companions that makes you remember how much fun reading can be, enough fun that you want to stay up all night to find out what happens.

(Oh, and by the way, if you are the sort of reader who, like me, sometimes can’t help flipping ahead to read the last page, Keneally is on to you. I’ve read reviews that complain about the last chapter, but I like to think it was written the way that it was because Keneally hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a reader.)