THE DAUGHTERS OF MARS
By Thomas Keneally. (Atria Books, $28, 513 pages.)
This sweeping, elegiac novel about two Australian sisters who serve as military nurses in Europe during World War I is by far the best book I’ve read this year. Sally and Naomi Durance are eager to leave their rural home in the wake of their mother’s death from cancer, which they may or may not have hastened with pilfered morphine. Soon they are working on a hospital ship in the Mediterranean, slipping in the blood of the horrifically wounded human cannon fodder floated there from Gallipoli and other sites in that particularly hellish war. A scene where the ship is sunk by a torpedo is stunningly written, beautiful and horrifying. The sisters survive to experience more horrors, yet discover wisdom and a strange happiness and pride in their work. Both find love with soldiers, even though it is pinched by the fear of possible loss. The book’s cast of characters is vast and memorable, and its descriptions of battle-scarred Europe, from reeking dysentery wards to the museums of Paris, are richly imagined and flawlessly crafted — indeed, as is every passage in this book. The story has a surprise ending — two, in fact — that add to its fascinations. Keneally’s best-known book is likely to remain “Schindler’s List,” but this is his masterpiece.
Pamela Miller, West Metro team leader
By Greg Baxter. (Twelve, 193 pages, $24.)
Greg Baxter’s haunting, lovely “The Apartment” is a perfect December read — mysterious, slow-moving, steeped in winter and snow. The narrator is an American in his early 40s who has come to an unnamed city in what is perhaps Eastern Europe, perhaps Germany, to escape his past in Iraq. The book unfolds over a single day as he and a young woman crisscross the city in search of a place for him to live. Not much happens — they chat, play pool, visit the Christmas market, do a little shopping — but it is the narrator’s internal life that holds the book’s power. A beautiful meditation on brutality and culture, which are sometimes inextricably intertwined.
Laurie Hertzel, senior editor/books