Small Wars – Book Review

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.

Highly recommended.

About the author:

Sadie Jones’s first novel, The Outcast, won the UK’s coveted Costa First Novel Award and was a finalist for the Orange Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. She lives in London. Small Wars was recently long listed for the 2010 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.

Follow the TLC Book Tour for this novel:

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog. Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to tour this novel.

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  1. I have this high on my list to read during “Orange” July – might move it up a bit further!!!

    • L Clare on February 10, 2011 at 00:15

    Another one for the wishlist!

    • zibilee on February 10, 2011 at 06:16

    I have been curious about this book, and after reading your review, I think this is one that I would really like. I like that it focuses so tightly on the personal and that it deals with the way that war interferes with relationships. Great review on this one. I will have to check it out!

  2. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction but do enjoy books about colonial rule, so I’m adding this to my wish list.

    • Amused on February 10, 2011 at 11:22

    I am so glad you enjoyed this one so much too! I agree, it was such a heartwrenching look at a marriage as it was a hard to read story of war.

    • Kailana on February 10, 2011 at 11:27

    I own this book, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. All the reviews I have seen lately, though, are making me think I need to remedy that!

  3. I’m glad you liked this one too! I haven’t read her first book yet, but I’m so pleased to see you loved that one too!

  4. This is a bit of history that I’m not all that familiar with, but it sounds like the characters experiences are ones that translate to any couple in wartime. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book – thanks for being a part of the tour.

    • Wendy on February 14, 2011 at 11:04

    Sally: I hope you’ll enjoy it as I did.

    L Clare: LOL!

    Heather: I was uncertain about this one because I don’t always love war novels – but this one is different in that it does focus on the relationships…hope you’ll like it too.

    Kathy: Hope it will be one you’ll enjoy.

    Amused: I haven’t seen too many “bad” reviews of this one – glad you also loved it 🙂

    Kailana: I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on it!

    Carrie: If you liked this one, you should read her first book which was equally good!

    Heather J @TLC: My pleasure – as always!

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