Wednesday, June 12, 2013

*Two from the land down under: The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally & The Asylum, by John Harwood

 The daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally

Atria Books, August 2013 US release date
544 pp

My thanks to both's first impressions program and the publishers for my advance reading copy.

Longlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Award, The Daughters of Mars didn't make it to the shortlist, but it's pretty good all the same, in that sweeping, summer-read sort of way.  It is a well-researched novel of historical fiction that plots the course of the Durance sisters, two Australian women who volunteer to serve as military nurses during World War I.  As a point of interest, according to an interview I read, the author used actual journals written by WWI nurses as part of his research, later reflecting  that "these women are too good not to write about." The story centers around the war and the effect it had not just on the soldiers, but on the Durance sisters and the other men and women with whom they work who have their own private battles to fight as well.

 Two sisters, Sally and Naomi Durance, both nurses, hail from the Macleay Valley. Naomi had left home while Sally stayed on the family farm, working only three miles away.  Their mother suffered from cervical cancer, and after months of suffering bad enough that she just wanted to die, Naomi came home to help out. During that visit, their mother dies; what may or may not have happened on that day leaves both with a burden of guilt hanging over them and bad feelings between the sisters.  It isn't long until Naomi writes home with the news that she's enlisting as a military nurse; Sally soon follows and in her own self-punishing way, hopes to engage herself in something bigger, and in another sense, to be rescued. Off first to Egypt, they're soon on board the hospital ship Archimedes taking them into the waters off the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, where hundreds of  casualties were ferried and put on its decks and small wards to be tended by the physicians, nurses and orderlies.  Later they are sent to France, where their patients now include victims of the new German weapon, gas.  From Gallipoli to the continent, the nurses find that by leaving their small Australian town, they've moved into the center of history -- yet also into lives that are much more complex than they could have ever previously realized. They must also suffer their own indignities and horrors on top of tending to the suffering of the physically and psychologically-damaged soldiers.  As they do so, the war provides a testing ground for individual mettle, resilience and spirit, and -- to paraphrase the author -- a venue for teaching these women about their weaknesses and at the same time educating them in the nature of the kind of women they are.

Australian nurses on board a hospital ship, 1915. From Gallipoli and the Anzacs, Australian Government Dept. of Veterans Affairs

For the most part, I liked Daughters of Mars.  While it's a wonderful tribute to some largely-unsung heroes, if you're looking for a happy story, this is definitely not it, and  it's not a tale for the easily queasyInjuries are described with no sugar coating, as are a number of the treatments the wounded had to undergo.  There  is also a large focus on death and life in this novel: there are soldiers who are aware they're going to die, there is much about mercy killing, and a rather disturbing scene where men are shot for attempting to commit suicide. It's a perfect book for a casual reader although I must say for me it was a bit too long -- and sometimes overly detailed.   I pretty much skimmed the love stories in this novel -- while I know that people fall in love in life, these episodes just went on too long for my taste.  As a warning, there are no quotation marks for conversations, and many reviewers have complained about the surprising ending (definitely a departure from the norm)  which I won't give away.   But overall, definitely recommended.   I will also be reading much more of Keneally's work over the rest of the year. 

  The Asylum, by John Harwood

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
272 pp


I have to be rather honest here. This is the third book I've read by John Harwood -- I loved his The Ghost Writer, which was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Prize in 2005, and I also enjoyed The Seance, his second book.  Compared to those two, this one is not as good, and for me, not so mysterious as I feel a gothic-style novel should be.  Having said that, let me just say that it's getting multi-star ratings so it's one you need to try on your own.  This is probably one of the ultimate beach reads this year.

I took The Asylum off my shelves to read just days after my book group had read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey -- you know, the one where young Catherine Morland has become so swept up in reading Gothic novels that it causes her a few problems down the road.  As is my usual habit, I first read the dust-cover blurb:

"Confused and disoriented, Georgina Ferrars awakens in Tregannon House, a private asylum in a remote corner of England. She has no memory of the past few weeks. The doctor, Maynard Straker, tells her that she admitted herself under the name Lucy Ashton the day before, then suffered a seizure. When she insists he has mistaken her for someone else, Dr. Straker sends a telegram to her uncle, who replies that Georgina Ferrars is at home with him in London... Suddenly her voluntary confinement becomes involuntary."

Oooh! oooh! I'm thinking, I can't wait to get into this one! I love Gothic novels and I like Gothic-style novels, and I'm a sucker for historical novels where people end up in an asylum, so this seemed right up my alley.  For a while it was. 

Related in three parts, the novel starts with Georgina/Lucy's arrival and her stay at Tregannon House. She can't help but wonder why she picked the name Lucy Ashton, and starts wondering if whether or not there was some "strain of madness" in her family. Telling herself  "not to think about it," she thinks instead about her childhood with her mother and great-aunt, another interesting story, set on a cottage about fifty yards from a cliff on the Isle of Wight.  An escape only leads to more questions, as she sees Georgina Ferrars in her uncle's home and then returned to Tregannon House.  As she's considering a second attempt, she stumbles upon her old writing case, leading to Part Two, which helps in some ways to clear up the mystery of what's going on, by going back in time to when her own mother was a young girl. 

While Part One held my interest completely; Part Two also intrigued for a while until the story started to become so obvious that I figured out most of what had happened and what was going to happen, so by Part Three, I just wanted to finish the book.  Certainly no mystery there -- and the transparency of it all sidelined my enjoyment. There were also so many implausible things happening here that it stopped being fun.  What I did like very much was the atmosphere the author created from the contemporary present in Tregannon House to a cottage on the Isle of Wight and even further back in time, to the realm of Victorian high society.  He sets up his story so that you don't know who you can trust in this book, which is a plus -- I love dubious characters and trying to sort them all out vis-a-vis their relationship with the main characters in this novel.   But overall, I wasn't that fond of this novel, and felt let down, which is a shame, since I liked his other two books so much. 

The Asylum is  getting really good reviews from several readers so maybe they see something in it that I didn't.  It just didn't do it for me.

fiction from Australia


  1. As an Aussie it's starting to get a little embarrassing that I have not read a Keneally - great review Nancy.

    1. Thanks, Jo. You'd be surprised at the low number of American authors I've read!!


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