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Small Wars

A timely novel considers the damage that soldiering can inflict on a marriage.

By Yvonne Zipp / February 26, 2010

Small Wars By Sadie Jones Harper/Collins 371 pp., $24.99

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How much overlap is there in what makes a man a good husband and what makes him a good soldier? And is it possible to be either when forced to take part in a campaign rife with military-sanctioned atrocities?

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Those are the questions at the heart of Sadie Jones’s ambitious and thematically charged second novel, Small Wars. Her award-winning debut, “The Outsider,” looked at the emotional damage wrought on a lonely child in a postwar British family. “Small Wars” also follows the fallout endured by one family, but this time Jones expands her setting beyond Britain.

Hal Treherne graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst six months too late to see action in World War II. So the third-generation Army scion, now a popular major with a reputation for fair play, is rather chuffed when he gets his chance on British-occupied Cyprus 10 years later. His wife, Clara, and two baby daughters follow him out to the rocky island, where Clara is faced with the unenviable task of trying to maintain the home front in the face of guerrilla warfare.

(Clara is determined not to be one of “those” wives, and has memorized her part of never making a fuss or complaining.)

Jones toggles back and forth between Clara’s fear and boredom at home, and Hal’s days of house-to-house searches for terrorists and firefights in the mountains. Jones is excellent at evoking fraught moments in both halves of the Trehernes’ lives. Here’s a birthday party for one of the officers’ sons: “They’d had donkeys brought up to the club and decorated their halters with coloured crepe paper, and given rides round and round the circular drive outside. Afterwards, they had all gone back to the garden, where tea was laid out on long tables and Clara had tried to persuade her girls of the merits of egg and cress sandwiches....”

At first, Hal feels as if he’s finally getting a chance to live up to expectations. But as his men go wild in retaliation for a bombing attack that kills one soldier and maims another and Hal discovers that his job entails arresting teenage boys and turning them over for torture, his sense of identity crumbles. He lashes out at Clara in unspeakable ways, while she relies on denial and an upper lip stiff enough to stack china on to repress her growing fury. Jones is very good at the psychology that kept British couples of the era from actually communicating, and the Trehernes’ silent domestic skirmishes can be every bit as harrowing as Hal’s battles with the terrorists of EOKA.

Hal is not gifted with introspection. Instead, Jones assigns the role of moral chorus to Lieutenant Davis, a somewhat mealy-mouthed Oxford-educated soldier whose Homeric Greek gets him assigned to the Special Branch. Whenever Davis is dismissed from the interrogation room, he knows the suspect is going to be tortured, and his self-loathing and sense of failure at not being able to stop the atrocities are poignant. “[W]ith each interrogation, seeing [the boy’s] deterioration, Davis jumped through the same hoops in the circus of his mental process. Steeped in shame, he condemned himself, but always, in the back of his mind the thought: This is still within the realm of the acceptable. If something really bad were to happen, I’d do something.”

Jones draws similarities between Britain’s role during the Mediterranean crisis and the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and exploits them powerfully.

Readers will have no trouble connecting the dots with statements such as: “It seemed no matter how many of the mountain gangs were destroyed the British could not bring peace to the island,” and, “If Cyprus was lost, they were saying in London, then the whole Middle East was lost.”

Every so often, though, a line of unnecessary exposition lands with a thud. After describing in evocative detail the raiding of the town of Limassol by out-of-control British troops, Jones concludes with this clunker: “The courage of the collective frees the individual to commit terrible acts.” No kidding – but she’s already shown us, so why tell us?

Clara and Davis are the most fascinatingly drawn of the characters, but it is Hal’s crisis of conscience that drives the plot. In “Small Wars,” Jones looks at what happens to decency and personal integrity in the face of a country’s global aspirations. It’s a timely novel, as well as a harrowing one.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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