Small Wars, by Sadie Jones


Review copy from Knopf Canada -- click cover for excerpt

While she has only published two novels, British writer Sadie Jones has already staked her claim in a strangely under-populated section of the literary world. Her books are just a little bit too “literary” to categorize her as a “popular” novelist. Yet, they are just a little bit too popular for her to be included in the literary set. Her first novel, The Outcast (a post-WWII coming of age story), was heavily promoted as a Booker contender, but failed to make the longlist. It did win the Costa first novel award and, more important in sales terms, was a Richard and Judy Summer Read (for those of us in North America, that is about as close to being an Oprah book as they have in the UK). Sales were most impressive.

Small Wars can be planted in the same literary territory. Set in 1956 Cyprus, where the Greeks, Turks and imperial British are engaged in a three-way civil war, the central characters are a young British major and Sandhurst grad, Hal Treherne, and his wife Clara and their young twins. On the literary side, it is an exploration of terrorism, responses to it and the effect those excessive responses have on those directly involved — a topic of immense contemporary relevance. On the popular side, however, it is also the story of a deteriorating marriage. While the global aspects of the book may be driving that deterioration, both the narrative style and focus of the realtionship aspect of the novel are more in the tradition of the popular, rather than literary, novel.

Here’s a representative sample from the opening pages:

Hal had been promoted to major, and transferred from his battalion in Germany to this one, alone, not knowing anybody. Everything had been new to him. He had set about the business of leadership and his new rank with steadfast energy, and was rewarded by a smooth transition. Sleeping alone in that house for a month, as he had, he missed the company of barracks, and the isolation was grating.

The Limassol house was narrow, in a cobbled street, with no outlook to speak of and barely a lock on the door. It made Hal uncomfortable to think of it, the unsettling lack of security, and that you couldn’t see anything from the windows other than the crooked windows of other houses. If someone were to approach, or set a booby-trap, there’d be no stopping them. A few months before, in Famagusta, an EOKA terrorist had lobbed a bomb through the open window of a solider’s house as his wife was putting the children to bed. Hal knew his instinct — his agony of responsibility — must be tempered and that the Housing Officer was doing everything he could to get him married quarters in the garrison.

Those two paragraphs do a good job of summarizing the challenge the author has set herself. The training of career military men, even at Sandhurst, has been for conventional war — this generation of soldiers is dealing with anything but. The Empire is in its final stages of withdrawal and the “enemy” doesn’t wear uniforms. They wander from safe house to cave to the crowded streets of the city; “offensives” involve explosions packed into pipes and ordinary tin cans; targets are not just armed soldiers, but their wives, children and even animals.

That is obviously a highly relevant contemporary theme and Jones deserves full credit for returning to the Cyprus of the mid-1950s to explore it (with the even more useful reminder that the Cyprus conflict has not been resolved in the half-century since). Predictably, the young British soldiers (Hal at 30 is one of the most senior officers) respond with excess and military discipline breaks down, sometimes completely. That increases the danger not only to them, but to all those around them.

Jones develops that part of her story through the experience of Lawrence Davis, a National Service recruit who, because of his classical education, is serving as a translator with the special intelligence unit. Davis gets to translate the opening parts of interrogations — when it comes time to get rough, including a primitive version of water-boarding, he is politely dismissed from the interrogation room. He is fully aware of what happens after he leaves; he is equally aware that this Dick Cheney approach (sorry for the anachronism) represents a rejection of everything that the British side is supposed to represent.

Inevitably, Hal’s experience at the garrison — and the internal conflicts it provokes — start to play out in how he treats his wife. Again, Jones deserves high marks for introducing a very contemporary issue into the novel. We tend to forget that the troops we send off to fight wars on our behalf are very young. They are still trying to figure out how to configure life; facing that challenge in a war zone (let alone a kind of war that one has had absolutely no preparation for) brings unresolvable tensions and conflicts.

I would break Small Wars roughly into thirds: the first introduces and develops the global issues, the second focuses on the pressures that puts on the marriage, the final third concentrates on how Hal responds. Throughout, the narrative is fast-paced and the prose straightforward (Richard and Judy will like that if considering the book for this summer — last year’s Booker jury again left Jones off the longlist).

Alas, for this reader, the resolution is simply too tidy. While I salute Jones for addressing a complex and important issue, I found she only explored levels one and two of a conundrum that probably has at least eight or ten, even with the restrictions she has placed on her plot. She does an excellent job of setting you thinking; but leaves that thinking unsatisfied by wrapping a conclusion around it far too soon, with too many side issues simply not explored.

Having said that, Small Wars does a good enough job of raising and defining the questions that the time invested in reading it was definitely worthwhile. I may not like the author’s resolution; I do appreciate having my thinking set in motion.

12 Responses to “Small Wars, by Sadie Jones”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    Interesting review, Kevin. I studiously avoided Jones’ first outing, if only because there was a period where every second woman on the tube was reading it, and hence I’ve not been inclined to pick up the second. But it sounds like a good book, despite the flaws you point out, so I’ll be less inclined to turn my nose up at it next time I consider picking it up in a bookshop.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: I share your issue with over-promoted books — watching people who don’t read a lot proclaim how good they are tends to grow the chip on my shoulder. I do think Small Wars is a much better book than The Outcast. And, for those of us who come from the colonies, Jones’ choice of Cyprus has some extra meaning (although it is not directly addressed in the book). While Australians and Canadians were simply battle fodder in the Great War, they moved into more significant roles in WWII — and by the time this one was set were in the front rank. I wouldn’t dismiss the book off its reputation, but neither would I say it is great. It is an entirely worthwhile effort.


  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds good, but a bit neat. I can see that a lot of people would find this very rewarding, and mixing the popular and literary themes (as you set out) is clever and will I think make it a favourite with a fair few people.

    But somehow I’m not grabbed myself. I think I tend to prefer my populism more populist, and my literary fiction more literary, I tend to try to avoid messing with Mr Inbetween.

    Terrible cover though. Squarely trying to categorise it as “women’s fiction”, which I think is unduly limiting (and not a category I think is particularly useful either). I see covers like that a lot at the moment, and they’re painfully generic, which I think is what I dislike about them so much.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Very interesting comment, Max, which I think illustrates the problem with the book. I too would prefer it more firmly in one camp or the other — rather than both — which I think is why I phrased the review the way that I did. The cover is misleading (but designed for sales) since that image never occurs in the narrative — Hal’s dilemma becomes the driving force. Sadie Jones introduces a very fascinating possibility in this book and partially addresses it, but simply doesn’t carry it through.


  5. Kerry Says:

    I have to agree with Max. I find myself less interested in “tweener” fiction than in either straight entertainment or more substantively literary efforts. Your review, however, was excellent and puts me in mind of a few people who may really enjoy this work. In other words, you’ve done a great job of identifying the audience, even if that audience likely won’t include me.


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Kerry — that is exactly what I was intending. I’d say this is a very good book for someone who normally reads the obvous bestsellers but is willing to be a bit more adventuresome on occasion.


  7. Guy A. Savage Says:

    I’ve had this one shoved at me lately and had been a bit curious because of its setting, but the cover put me off a bit. Then I saw this review, and it sinks the book for me–not that the review is negative but just that I now know it’s not my sort of read.


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    You are welcome, Guy. From what I know of your tastes, I don’t think you would find much in this book. Even worse, I think the frustration of seeing a most interesting premise developed all too shallowly would have you really grating your teeth. The setting is good (and the cover is totally misleading) but I could only conclude that the book could have been so much more than it is.


  9. Guy A. Savage Says:

    I can usually pick classics that I will like but find that it’s not so easy a task with modern fiction–especially when the market is the internet. The internet is wonderful when it comes to the selection of books but not-so-wonderful when you can’t actually read a few pages and get a sense of whether or not the book is the sort of thing you’d be interested in. Plus the marketing of some books, while aggressive, can often leave a lot to to desired.

    Some books seem to be marketed incorrectly or inaccurately, and I think this is a bit peculiar as while this might make the book sell, it won’t leave a lot of happy campers at the end of the day. (Perhaps this is where the ‘tweener’ idea mentioned by Kerry comes in). I’ve read a few too many newer books which, if they’d been described properly, I would never have bothered with. It’s made me be a bit cautious as a result.


  10. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    A very useful review, thanks – having read The Outcast last year I was wondering whether to tackle this one, but will now do so. The Outcast was one of those rare finds – everyone is reading it on the tube as kimbofo says, but it turns out to be really worthwhile.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: If you liked The Outcast (I was pretty lukewarm on it) I think you probably will like this book. It is not to everyone’s taste, but does have appeal for some.


  12. Wandering Coyote Says:

    Hmmmm…I avoided this because I really had a hard time with The Outcast…


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