Small Wars, by Sadie Jones.
The outrage of the collective frees the individual to commit terrible acts. - from Small Wars, page 141 -
In the quiet times, when he thought of the siege on Pappas's mountain camp and its conclusion, he felt doubt, like a betrayal, shadowing him. Hal had known these things happened in wars; he had thought the wars would be different. - from Small Wars, page 121 -
Hal Trehene is an officer in the British military. Bright, motivated, and moving up in the ranks, he is eager for battle but finds himself instead on Cyprus where the bright blue skies and inviting waters seem very far from war. When Hal's wife, Clara, joins him there with their twin daughters, the mood on Cyprus is becoming tense and the rumblings of violence are growing louder. The EOKA -- an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist nationalist organization -- has begun to commit terrorist acts against the British military and their families in an effort to liberate Cyprus from British rule. Hal finds himself on the cusp of war where loyalty to one's country may conflict with one's inner moral compass.
Small Wars, Sadie Jone's elegant second novel, is set during a difficult time in British history. The EOKA, led by George Grivas, focused their efforts against the British military, but the conflict was decidedly political and attracted front page headlines. The EOKA campaign lasted until March 1959 and was defined by terrorism, brutality, and the deaths of not only military personnel, but civilians as well. The guerilla methods of EOKA have been widely studied as an example of anti-colonial, national-liberation struggles in a period of decolonization. Into this volatile mix, Jones places her characters: the reserved and proper Hal who thinks he is prepared for war, but finds himself struggling with a type of post-traumatic stress; and the lovely Clara, who wants to support her husband but begins to feel as though she does not really know him.
This introspective novel is really about the impact of war on relationships and our sense of identity. Hal struggles with the moral decisions he is forced to make. He finds himself torn between doing the "right thing" and doing what he must do to support the military's agenda and ultimately his country. Unable to communicate his vulnerability and fears to Clara, he instead erects an emotional wall against her which further isolates him. Clara struggles with being the good, military wife and mother while finding herself more and more alone in a dangerous situation. Neither character communicates effectively, leaving room for misunderstanding, anger, and an escalation of their own fears.
Sadie Jones is adept at getting beneath the skin of her characters. The tension in the novel is subtle, but as events begin to escalate, the reader's unease and anxiety begins to parallel that of the characters. As in Jones' previous novel, The Outcast (read my review), the characters are flawed, their relationship with each other seeming almost too damaged to be mended -- and yet, in the end, Jones allows for the idea of redemption and leaves the reader a glimmer of hope for a happy future.
Small Wars is a gem of a novel -- carefully constructed with an understated, yet elegant, plot. The historical background and geographical setting lend themselves well to the overarching theme of the small internal wars we fight to remain whole in the face of disaster. Readers of historical fiction will find this novel a compelling look at the struggle against colonial rule, and the men and women who found themselves in the middle of it.
Four and a half stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".