Friday 1 February 2013

Small Wars by Sadie Jones

Sadie Jones made a terrific debut with her novel, The Outcast, one of those stories involving family secrets, a tragic death and an awkward main character trying to make sense of it all when all the world seems against him. It was altogether stunning and I have been meaning to catch up with Jones's Small Wars, for quite some time.
    While not quite in the same class as The Outcast for a compelling character and gripping storyline, Small Wars is I think a more thought provoking novel. It describes a little-known part of British history, for me anyway - the British forces involvement in Cyprus during the 1950s - and the effects of army policy on those caught up in it all - in particular the soldiers and their wives.
    Yes, this is another soldiers' wives sort of story, but done tremendously subtly here, as you might expect, because Jones is one of those authors who can get right inside her characters and make them real.
    These include Major Hal Traherne, a talented young officer with a bright future, and his lovely wife, Clara, who has just arrived on Cyprus with their twin daughters. They are eventually housed safely in the army compound with other army families, but there is the perpetual problem with any kind of war, for men and families alike: long spells of tedium broken up by moments of violence and terror.
    Cyprus is a challenge in that although it is a 'small war', it has its particular difficulties. The Cypriot rebels use guerilla tactics often resulting in British casualties before vanishing into the mountains. To maintain control the British have to come down hard on the rebels in a way that makes one wonder where the Geneva Convention would stand in all of this. The things Hal sees and does he cannot discuss with Clara, so the war becomes a wedge between them, affecting Hal's behaviour to her and their marriage.
    Clara meanwhile tries to be the correct army wife, smiling and caring for her children. But it is a tremendously lonely time for her, and she finds friends few and far between. The thin walls that separate their house from that of Mark and Deirdre reveal a marriage in strife. Deirdre is obviously not being a good army wife, but Clara does her best to be supportive none the less. Another friend is Davis, a young classics scholar doing his compulsory military service as a translator, an important role that he frequently finds disturbing, witnessing as he does some very unpleasant interrogations.
    The story centres on the struggles the characters each experience in this small war to do what is expected of them while maintaining a facade of normal life as the violence around them intensifies. This eventually explodes into the lives of Hal and Clara, throwing them into an unenviable crisis that has life-changing effects.
    Sadie Jones does well at recreating what it might have been like on Cyprus at this time, and the book has a lot to say about the patriarchal system that dominated British colonial policy. I am sure the lengths the British went to to maintain their colonial interests here and in other parts of the world seemed perfectly justifiable in the past. We might think we know better now, but sadly there are still small wars and that is probably not going to change. As I said before, this book gives you a lot to think about.

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