Fresh off her triumphantly assured debut novel The Outcast, award-winning author Sadie Jones has again delivered a quiet masterpiece in Small Wars.
Set on the colonial, war-torn island of Cyprus in 1956, Jones tells the story of a young solider, Hal Treherne, and the effects of this "small war" on him, his wife, Clara, and their family. Reminiscent of classic tales of love and war such as The English Patient and Atonement, Jones's gripping novel also calls to mind the master works of Virginia Woolf and their portrayal of the quiet desperation of a marriage in crisis.
Small Wars is at once a deeply emotional, meticulously researched work of historical fiction and a profound meditation on war-time atrocities committed both on and off the battlefield.
Sadie Jones uses a forgotten guerilla uprising, the Cypriot revolt against British rule, as a means to make a rather heavy-handed statement about war, the military machine, and colonialism that resounds in the "small wars" being fought today in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots. Jones focuses on the isolation of and between a young couple, Clara and Hal Traherne, to make her points about the dehumanization wrought by the struggle for world power. Clara, a bit pampered yet willing to play the military wife and follow her husband first to Germany, then to Cyprus, seems completely unprepared for life in a war zone. Hal, on the other hand, acts around Clara as if everything is perfectly fine, unable or unwilling to share his experiences and discounting her fears. By the time a personal tragedy hits, their lives have already been changed and their marriage may be beyond repair (although Jones does hint at a reconciliation in the end).
While I enjoyed Small Wars, the characters here lacked the depth of those in her first novel, The Outcast. Several secondary characters, like the literature-loving translator with an inconvenient moral streak but not much backbone, and the shopaholic officer's wife who befriends Clara in Nicosia, are never fully realized, and even Hal and Clara are a bit flat. Perhaps Jones's obvious desire to send us an antiwar message overwhelmed some of the finer elements of plot and character here. Still, I'd recommend the book to anyone wanting to know more about life in the 1950s, particularly for a young military family in a "small war" zone.
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