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War, death, duty and love
Small Wars - Sadie Jones
Member Name: dee778
Small Wars - Sadie Jones
Date: 06/07/10, updated on 06/07/10 (53 review reads)
Advantages: Great characterisations, fascinating subject matter
Disadvantages: Hugely frustrating by today's standards
I found it very difficult to slot 'Small Wars' into any category. An analysis of the pre-war years when silence was manly and honour was paramount? A love story? A description of the hidden horrors of war? Or a moving combination of all three?
The book starts in a traditionally romantic way. Hal Treherne is a newly commissioned soldier, passing out of Sandhurst and falling in love with Clara, the quiet sister of his best friend. Both the children of established military families, the match seems made in heaven and as Hal's golden military career progresses, he finds himself in Cyprus during the heat of the battle as EOKA terrorists are fighting for independence from Britain and union with Greece. Clara and their twin daughters follow dutifully to join them in the island's military community; to a life of White Ladies in the Club, picnics on the beach and formal dinners with the Colonel.
Both Hal and Clara know their roles in life; Hal has to be the strong husband, the strong leader, the protector - unflinching in the face of action, commanding and unhesitating in the face of carnage. Clarissa has to be the dutiful wife, not showing fear, supporting her husband at all times, smiling through threat and always being the calm presence that Hal comes back to after the horrors of war.
Their traditional lives have never prepared them for the decisions that are to come. A young and sensitive Lieutenant, Lawrence Davis, is the academic translator who should never have been part of this particular war. Horrified by the atrocities and torture that he sees committed by British soldiers and needing to unburden himself, he goes to the one person that he looks up to and trusts; Hal. Hal himself is starting to become destroyed by the death and violence that he sees around him, haunted by the smell of burning flesh, he is unable to unburden himself to Clarissa, and a void grows up between them, heavy with the weight of unspoken secrets. This final secret is too much for the relationship, and sends it spiralling out of control. The resolution, both of the marriage and the secrets that Hal bears, bring everything he has been brought up to believe into doubt, and to make him betray everything.
Sadie Jones ' very well received first novel was 'The Outcast', written in 2008, and this novel evoked exactly the same sense of frustration and anger in me. Jones is expert at depicting the repression of middle class 1950s - a time when it was unmanly to tell other people the truth about your feelings, and defending your honour seemed to have exactly the opposite effect. Although I have no evidence about this, I feel that Jones depicts the strange conventions of the time with enormous realism. I found myself shouting "tell him, just tell him the truth" throughout the story - but this was not the way of the 1950s. One kept a stiff upper lip and coped.
The strength of the writing is in the characterisation. The scenes that Jones creates, with all of their repression and superficiality, capture the essence of the time in an uncanny way. Some of the issues surrounding war and the behaviour of the British military are still very, very current - and I was honestly shocked at some of the descriptions. Moments of shocking brutality creep up on the reader out of the blue, and the horror feels very genuine. In tandem with descriptions of bloody battle, the seemingly innocuous social life of the wives makes a stark contrast, but Sadie Jones has the skill to let the reader in underneath the banality - where every social chit chat covers up a deep loneliness and panic, and the wives play their parts to perfection; Stepford wives who always nurture, welcome, support - never show anger or despair but keep the fašade of civilised family life constant. In the military world of the 1950s civilised behaviour is paramount - don't stir the waters Old Chap, just pretend you haven't noticed.
Like 'The Outcast' this novel explores themes of duty, shame, and ostracism from society. It was only at the end of the book, once I had rid myself of the strong emotions that I was forced into by the plot that I realised that the characters were very real to me, and that the story would stay with me for a long time.
Small Wars was published in paperback by Vintage in 2010.
It has 472 pages, ISBN: 9780099540526
Summary: Not your average wartime romance