The adventures of two young sisters give shape to “The Daughters of Mars,” Thomas Keneally’s bludgeoningly powerful new novel. Sally and Naomi Durance are making their living as registered nurses in Australia’s Macleay Valley when a pair of catastrophes strike, one intimate and one global: Their mother develops cancer, and the Great War erupts. The Durance sisters sign up at once and leave their provincial lives behind, shipping out to Gallipoli and then to the slaughterhouse of the Western Front in a small company of fellow nurses, some of the thousands of Australian women who served in hospital ships and hastily erected triage stations within earshot of the front lines.
In a series of meaty, masterfully orchestrated chapters, Keneally steadily deepens and broadens the horrors these characters encounter. He is the most businesslike of historical novelists, and in this book, as in earlier masterpieces like “Confederates” and “Schindler’s List,” he refuses to abstract events by rendering them poetically. A nearby bomb’s explosion, we’re told, “threatened to loosen Sally’s bladder,” and characters visiting Notre Dame realize that, “like the pyramids, the cathedral could be approached by ordinary steps taken by one’s daily legs.” When the nurses get their first sight of the fabled Greek island of Lemnos from their hospital ship, they find it “now reduced from myth to the level of any other dreary island.”