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The Daughters pf Mars” by Thomas Keneally (Atria)513 pages, $28

Sisters learn horrors of World War I at close range

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.”

As he ushers his characters closer and closer to the worst of the war’s fighting, Keneally allows them no illusions. The effect – at once absorbing and nerve-racking – is reminiscent of the unblinking war fiction of Nicholas Monsarrat, and readers of his “The Cruel Sea” will be expecting the German U-boat torpedo that strikes the Archimedes and sends all our characters into the ocean.

In that bravura chapter, “The Archimedes Gone,” we’re told that “the water was full of claims to mercy,” and those claims are repeated throughout this book, the persistent theme of Keneally’s historical fiction being the brutally high price tag warfare puts on kindness. The Durance sisters – flashy, superbly capable Naomi and steadfast Sally – face the war with uncomplicated valor, and despite one character’s observation that “men are very strange creatures,” each sister manages to fall in love. Naomi’s young man, on the pitching deck of a ship, shouts against the wind, “I favor you greatly. ... Would you consider marrying me?” And Sally’s beau fortunately lacks “that dark pulse in the eyes” that combat veterans usually have, “that almost chemical mixture of fatalism and bloody remembrance and tired ruthlessness.”

But as heartfelt and keenly observed as these romances are, they can’t help but be dwarfed by their backdrop. The novel’s effort to capture the intimate and the epic more often than not favors the latter. There’s a Homeric tone to much of these proceedings, and “impersonal” certainly informs the brilliant twist in the last chapter, which will have some readers screaming for their money back.

Through it all, though, there’s a marvelously fine-tuned modulation between bitter introspection and pitch-perfect dark humor. In one grimly funny scene, for instance, the nurses are ordered to abandon the wounded and take shelter during a bombardment, and their head matron takes command of the mood by producing her account book and loudly tolling off each woman’s mess bills: “Slattery, eleven shillings and sixpence. Freud, twelve and eightpence. Casement eighteen and seven pence – a lot of extra chocolate bought there, Casement.”

This is an extremely tricky balance to strike, and Keneally pulls it off with consummate skill. He fashions an unforgettable novel here, in which “young men were smashed for obscure purposes and smashed again.” But impossibly, there are also glimmers of stubborn hope, too.

Steve Donoghue, managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly, wrote this review for Washington Post Book World.

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