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Small Wars by Sadie Jones

Posted By John R. Guthrie On January 19, 2010 @ 11:16 am In Fiction Reviews,Great Britain,Military | No Comments

Small Wars: A Novel
by Sadie Jones
Harper, 384 pp.
CLR Rating:

A British Soldier and His Family in War-torn Cyprus

Major Hal Treherne and wife Clara share the spotlight in novelist Sadie Jones’s well-told tale, Small Wars. Major Treherne, a 1946 Sandhurst graduate, is a rising star in Her Majesty’s Army. He is idealistic and determined to be, like his father and grandfather before him, an honorable soldier and a credit to the armed forces and the nation. In 1955 he reports in for duty with British Forces on Cyprus near the village of Episkopi on the island’s southern coast. The small town of Limassol is adjacent to the base.

Clara follows by ship with their twin nineteen-month old daughters, Meg and Lottie. Through novelist Jones’s eyes, we see Major Treherne as a soldier/father/husband who loves Clara and the children. Clara encounters austere circumstances for herself and the twins including being generally unable to communicate with the locals and residing in miserably substandard off-base housing. With admirable British resilience, she makes the most of her difficulties, happy for the family to be together again.

Cyprus, because of its location, has a long and colorful history, one that is often written in blood. The island is 200 by 100 miles, slightly larger than half the size of Connecticut, and is shaped like a pollywog sprouting legs. Its Eastern Mediterranean locale is in close proximity to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Greece. Significantly for British interests, it stands on the approach to the strategically important Suez Canal and thus to the oil-rich Middle East in general.

Cyprus’s larger community is of Greek descent. There is also a smaller demographic of Turkish Cypriots, remnants of the once far-ranging Ottoman Empire.

The Greek Cypriots wanted union with Greece, “enosis.” The Brits reneged on a promise to consent. Members of the Greek community organized EOKA (a Greek acronym for National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters). In 1955 they began a brutal campaign of terror that lasted well into 1956 against the British.

The miniscule war quickly became, “…a thing driving itself with no absolutes to unravel. Places that are fought over will always be fought over…and there will never be an end to it, and each conflict is just adding to the heap of conflicts that no one can remember starting and no one will ever, finish.”

Terrorism, the weapon of the weak against the mighty, is seen to be similar in its manifestations no matter the locale or the cause: pipe bombs, random shootings and more ensue. Inevitably, as Treherne’s commanding officer Colonel Burroughs notes, in the retaliation by British forces in Limassol, “Some of the men had been understandably overzealous.” Such overzealousness is, of course, a part of the terrorist’s goal; it helps them in recruiting locals.

The conflict becomes a war in which, “…there was no truth. It was a nothing, laughable Mickey Mouse conflict; it was a sinister time of terror and repression. The British were misguided and ignorant; the Cypriots were lethargic and foolish. The Cypriots loved the British; the Cypriots hated the British. The British were torturers; the British were decent and honourable. EOKA were terrorists; EOKA were heroes.”

Major Treherne’s initiation into combat occurrs when he leads a search and destroy mission into the island’s interior to capture or kill the terrorist Pappas. Cyprus’s beaches are idyllic, the interior terrain mountainous. The peaks and valleys of the interior are not as imposing as those of, say, Afghanistan, yet they can be equally barren and forbidding. Treherne’s orderly, Kirby, aptly characterized the terrain they searched as follows, “Who’d be prepared to die for this?…It’s just rocks.’” Major Treherne realizes the landscape is, “…enormous, foreign to all of them, and daunting. That to their enemy it was home and friendly as a pasture.” The encounter with Pappas and his men culminates in a fierce and brutal encounter in a remote mountain redoubt.

The furor becomes so intense that Hal insists that Clara and the children move to ostensibly safer quarters in the city of Nicosia; “…practically Paris compared to Limassol.”

The separation proves stressful for Clara. Her distress intensified by the fact that she is, quite unintentionally, four months pregnant. Her loneliness is assuaged in some degree by developing a friend and supporter in the person of Gracie Bundle, another “stiff upper lip “ army wife and the mother of four young boys. Yet even in cosmopolitan Nicosia, far from the sound of the bugle’s call, neither Gracie nor Clara find safety from the uncertainties and dangers of their “Small War.”

Over the final seventy or so pages of this story, novelist Jones continues to build suspense as she deftly knits together a surprising resolution for Major Hal Treherne and his family. Subsequent decisions and actions by Major Treherne in dealing with his, his family’s and his command’s circumstances are dismaying—but well told and provocative. The yet unvoiced buzz phrase, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, aptly summarizes his state of mind.

Jones plots her story with exceptional skill, effectively breathing life into her characters. Her prose is spare, fluid, and provides a sense of verity as she artfully demonstrates the impact of Cyprus’s, “Small War,” on the Treherne family and others.

Small Wars gives the thoughtful reader something to carry away, to consider, after the book is finally closed. With its constant threat of terrorist incidents, the uncertainty and the emotional toll of the conflict, this novel possesses a remarkable contemporary resonance. It is unlikely for any reader to leave Small Wars without giving some thought to our men and women in uniform in Middle East locations such as Afghanistan.

This work of literary fiction is also notable for its psychological depth and characterizations. The shortcomings of Small Wars are quibbles. Jones has the archaic and impedimentary habit of abbreviating military units with initial letters and blanks, e.g. R_____ A_____. This breaks the flow of the read because it’s difficult not to stop and attempt to decipher the blanks. She refers to the plane that evacuates Clara Treherne as, “Not a (twin-engine) Valetta after all, but a twin-engine Hastings.” The Hastings is a four-engine late 1940s work-horse designed for troop transport, innovative for that era and a machine of which the British were justifiably proud.

Sadie Jones resides in London with her husband and two sons. Her debut novel, The Outcast was published to wide critical acclaim in 2008. It received both the British Costa Award for a first novel and was also nominated for the coveted Orange Prize. In the United States it was a finalist in the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. One can reasonably expect similar high regard for Small Wars.


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