Excerpt from book:
Murdering Mrs. Durance
It was said around the valley that the two Durance girls went off but just the one bothered to come back. People could not have said which one, since both the girls were aloof and looked similar—dark and rather tall. There was confusion even in the local paper. And they weren’t the sort of girls whose names were called across streets—girlfriend hallooing girlfriend in the excitement of Kempsey’s big shopping days. Before the war it was the younger one—wasn’t it?—who stayed at home with her parents. The slightly shorter one, anyhow. And it was she who took her mother, Mrs. Durance, to visit the surgeon in Sydney. But what could those Macquarie Street doctors do?
After a choppy night’s passage down the coast aboard the Currawong, Mrs. Durance finally fell asleep off Broken Bay, only to be woken, as the steamer entered the Sydney Heads, by a steward bearing tea— Sally being on deck at the time for the experience of the approach to Port Jackson.
Mother and daughter had time for another cup of tea at the wharf in Darling Harbour before Sally took the exhausted Mrs. Durance to the surgeon’s rooms in Macquarie Street. After an examination by this eminent man, she was sent from his office to Sydney Hospital for X-rays. Then she and Sally met up with Naomi, the other daughter, the one who was considered a bit flash—Macleay District Hospital not good enough for her—who’d been in Sydney a few years.
They went that afternoon for a bang-up tea at Cahill’s, while they waited for the expert men who read the body’s inner secrets from photographs to discover what was wrong with Mrs. Durance. The sisters knew their mother had understated her pain to them. They knew she was secretive about the scale of her bleeding and the urine coming out of the wrong opening.
That night, Naomi put them up in her little flat in Bondi Junction—Mama sharing Naomi’s bed, Sally on the sofa. They could have all stayed at Mrs. Durance’s younger sister Jackie’s place at Randwick, but Mrs. Durance didn’t want to share news of her health problems with her sister yet. Both Sally and Naomi woke several times to their mother’s choked-down groans. But unblunted ambition seemed to declare itself the next morning in the briskness with which Naomi put on her uniform and her scarlet cape to go to her duty at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
There had always been something larger than her beginnings written in Naomi Durance’s gestures and her long bones. Her parents knew it. She had left them for the city, but in so far as they were boastful, they boasted of her. Sally worked a mere three miles from home, across the river, at the Macleay District Hospital. Merit in that, no one denied, and loyalty. But it was news of Naomi that made eyes shine on the Durance farm.
It was cervical cancer, the surgeon told Mrs. Durance the next morning. There was no option of an operation, for it would be a very long, painful, and dangerous procedure, and could not hope to get all of the proliferating cancer. Surgery was to be recommended chiefly in the early stages, whereas metastasis had already occurred, as the X-rays showed. If she rested well and ate lots of fruit, he said, she could expect to live at least a year. She was a dairy farmer’s wife? Well, no more butter churning, he said, and no early morning milking. He would give her a script for pain medicine, he told her. He would also be writing to her doctor in the Macleay so that he could keep her comfortable.
You are fortunate to have two daughters wFrom the acclaimed author of Schindler’s List, the new novel that has been called the best of Thomas Keneally’s career, and hailed as “magnificent…stunning…full of suspense, searing particulars, and deep emotion” (The Guardian).
In 1915, Naomi and Sally Durance, two spirited Australian sisters, join the war effort as nurses, escaping the confines of their father’s farm and carrying a guilty secret with them. Used to tending the sick as they are, nothing could have prepared them for what they confront, first on a hospital ship near Gallipoli, then on the Western Front.
Yet amid the carnage, the sisters become the friends they never were at home and find themselves courageous in the face of extreme danger and also the hostility from some on their own side. There is great bravery, humor, and compassion, too, and the inspiring example of the remarkable women they serve alongside. In France, where Naomi nurses in a hospital set up by the eccentric Lady Tarlton while Sally works in a casualty clearing station, each meets an exceptional man: the kind of men for whom they might give up some of their newfound independence—if only they all survive.
At once vast in scope and extraordinarily intimate, The Daughters of Mars brings World War I vividly to life from an uncommon perspective. Thomas Keneally has written a remarkable novel about suffering and transcendence, despair and triumph, and the simple acts of decency that make us human even in a world gone mad.