Small Wars by Sadie Jones

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Small Wars by Sadie Jones

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Sadie Jones' second novel is set mainly on a British base in 1950's Cyprus. Hal and Clara's young love is blown apart by the reality of war. A very good novel, but not a great one?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
ISBN: 978-0701184551

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Even though our world is ostensibly at peace, hundreds of localized, unwinnable conflicts continue to grumble on. Mostly, we only hear and care about the ones involving 'our boys', as if war was some giant game of football. But it isn't, and Small Wars reflects on the casualties of war in a story set in Cyprus in the Two-Way Family Favourites era of the nineteen-fifties. It may turn out to be an important book as the public mood turns against the 'war on terror' in Afghanistan. It's certainly a prescient one.

In the pre-Cold War, pre-Vietnam world, Cyprus was a small war zone. In escalating tension prior to the Suez crisis, the island was a strategically important bridgehead for British forces in a possible future oil war. Like Northern Ireland, the local population divided along sectarian lines of Turkish or Greek Cypriots. Like Afghanistan, it was all too easy for small numbers of local insurgents to mount successful guerilla attacks on occupying British forces. Like Iraq, bullying soldiers could avenge the deaths of comrades in the name of intelligence or house searches. This historical setting for Small Wars, really could be of the present day; the writing has immediacy … it could be any night on the 'News at Ten'.

Each soldier's death is a tragedy to his family somewhere. As ordinary members of the public, that's where our sympathies lay as we watch the flag-draped coffins return. What then of the commanding officer, who has been trained in the impersonal vocabulary of military science? What of the young officer who plans and commands a successful skirmish, putting theory into grisly reality, to find that warfare is not a team game? What if, when his senses are assailed for the first time by the stench of death, he is so affected by his responsibility, that he cannot remain a complicit part of the status quo?

If this book has something to say about small wars, it is that they are brutal and dehumanizing. Decent family men like Hal Treherne become the feared bogeyman of small children caught up in the conflict. Mild-mannered students like Lawrence Davis are unwilling witnesses to atrocities. Worst of all, good men and senior officers like Colonel Burroughs are complicit in denying and covering up institutionalized bullying to keep the public perception of a clean, civilized war 'game' intact.

Sadie Jones juxtaposes Hal, the soldier in his army setting, with Clara, the wife, stationed with him, to great effect. The device emphasises the dislocation Hal feels when he moves from work to home on the army base. The contexts are too disparate for Hal to cope: of course in pre-Vietnam, pre-Carl Rogers days, there was little understanding of traumatic stress, let alone help, for serving soldiers. Clara has to guess unsuccessfully at Hal's feelings since voicing conflicting emotions within army life is unsustainable. It comes as no surprise that the resulting strain affects their marriage and Hal's stability, leaving Clara struggling to cope.

I was surprised by the gutsiness of Sadie Jones' writing. Not many women choose to describe a soldier's war in detail, but here is an utterly convincing account of the minutae of fighting. I was also bowled over by her emotional perspicacity. She's inside the head of every character, from Cypriot insurgents to the C.O.'s wife. My sister-in-law was the daughter of a Colonel and his wife from that time: my goodness, those army characters are right down the line.

I thought this was a beautifully written novel up to Page 302. Having said all this, I'm afraid to report that for me the fourth and final part deteriorated into pap. It was as if (to use that sport analogy once more), the author had set up the goals, but didn't shoot them in. I found Clara's reactions particularly unlikely. Hand gestures take the fuzzy place of an examination of the characters' thoughts and emotions; thought processes degenerate to a superficial level which lacks credibility. I didn't believe that the person-centred psychiatric interview was in period. Personally I would have far preferred to leave Hal to his hopeless destiny on board the plane. For me, the last seventy pages added only verbiage to an otherwise superb book.

The device of juxtaposing civilian and army daily life reminded me of two other superb reads by master-wordsmiths. I expect you already know of Ian McEwan's wonderful, Atonement. Jayne Anne Phillips' Lark and Termite is another memorable read set in the Korean War, which I'd highly recommend. Although both are in my view stronger novels than Small Wars, given time and space, I won't be surprised if Sadie Jones develops into a writer of the same calibre.

The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

Buy Small Wars by Sadie Jones at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Small Wars by Sadie Jones at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Small Wars by Sadie Jones at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Small Wars by Sadie Jones at Amazon.com.

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