I picked up this novel from my local bookstore shortly after it was published in September last year, not because of any particular interest in or knowledge about the involvement of nurses in World War I, but because I respect Thomas Keneally as a writer and and hadn't read any of his work for a while. It took me several months to start reading the book and a hour or two of reading it to decide that I was going to like it. For the past two days I haven't wanted to put it down.
Keneally's main characters are sisters Naomi and Sally Durance, nurses from an Australian country town, who are pulled together and pushed apart by a shared family secret. When World War I breaks out, they volunteer to join the Australian Army Nursing Service, which was part of the Army's medical corps. The sisters are initially sent to Egypt and later work on a hospital ship and then on an island in the Mediterranean, caring for soldiers injured in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Later, they work in France: Naomi in a hospital run by an English volunteer, Sally in an Australian Army hospital and then in a casualty clearing station close to the front line. Keneally details their experiences from 1914 to 1918 and the experiences of the young men and women whom they meet and with whom they work.
This is not a cheery tale. That's not to say that it doesn't have its lighter moments, but the story is a grim one. There are some distressing scenes describing war injuries, their treatment and their effects. And while the nurses necessarily work behind the front line, they are not immune from the direct consequences of battle. Suffice to say that a number of scenes made me weep. Keneally's prose is powerful and he has a gift for describing momentous scenes in relatively few words. I read a professional review of the novel which highlighted a couple of linguistic anachronisms. While I accept that they are there, I didn't notice them as I read, which confirms how engaged I was with the characters and the story. Readers should know that Keneally does not use quotation marks for dialogue. This does not bother me at all. In fact - in this book at least - I prefer it. The prose looks clean and uncluttered on the page and it was never difficult to work out who's speaking to whom.
As I'm not a World War I expert and have no medical background, I can't assess the accuracy of Keneally's research. However, Keneally is not only a novelist. He has written a number of books on Australian history, a book on Irish history and biographies, including a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Keneally knows how to do research and he has listed his sources at the end. I am prepared to trust that he got the history right.
Several reviews on Goodreads refer to the fact that Keneally presents alternative endings to the novel as a cop-out. Neither of his alternative endings was the ending I wanted. However, I don't agree that the device is a cop-out. What the presentation of alternative endings does is illustrate one of the novels most pervasive themes: the extent to which life is a lottery with an infinite range of possible outcomes. None of us know when we wake up in the morning if the story of our day is going to end happily. How much greater the odds of an unhappy ending for those involved in or directly affected by war: five millimetres difference in the trajectory of a bullet may mean complete safety, losing the tip of an ear, or death. As one of the characters in the novel - a soldier who has incurred horrific injuries - says: "When they ask me to write my war memoirs, they'll consist of one thing. Standing in the wrong place."
In spite of the grimness of the story, I'm glad that I read this work. It's both a moving piece of literature and a powerful tribute to the nurses of World War I, whose contribution deserves more acknowledgment. 4-1/2 stars.