Friday, 4 June 2010

Small Wars by Sadie Jones

Small Wars is a novel based Cyprus and England during the military emergency over there in the 1950’s. Focused around Hal, a Major in the British army, and Clara his wife, it is more a book about how war changes and affects people, and by extension, the effects it has on a marriage.

Clara and Hal are presented as a very solid, together couple, with both trying to do what is best for each other and their children. Clara knows and accepts the responsibilities of being an army wife, and Hal accepts his duty to provide for her, look after her and keep her as safe as possible. But more than this, they seem happy simply being together and in love. However separately defined their roles are, they always seem to find time to be together, this closeness is always apparent at the start of the novel, shown most effectively through their sharing of a brandy and cigarette after a meal. Hal and Clara have spent Hal’s first commission in Germany, where although Hal has done well and risen through the ranks, he has seen no real action, and is actually looking forward to his posting in Cyprus.

However, this seemingly blissful situation can’t continue, else obviously there would be no story! It is not long before the atrocities Hal witnesses in his day to day life stat to affect him, and as a consequence he starts to gradually withdraw from Clara. It is not long before the things Hal is dealing with start to affect the way he feels and how he sees himself fitting into his home life. Throughout the book Hal is torn between his family life, and his army career.

“His own self was overwhelming him and everything else was far distant”

“The room felt extraordinarily big to him, and very clean. He was too big for it, and not welcome”

There is a sense of what is right and wrong in military action running throughout this novel, and although it is seen through Hal’s eyes, it is also seen through the eyes of Lawrence Davis, a national service soldier, who works as interpreter. In this line of work, he is witness to some things he would rather not see, and spends a lot of time reconciling himself to what is acceptable. In a way, Hal’s struggle with himself is more personal and expressed through his actions, whereas Lawrence voices his feelings to himself (and the readers), making it clear in words what Hal is experiencing through his behaviour.

“Davis was surprised that his capacity for dread and disgust had not diminished. The boy was kept awake, standing, for hours at a time, and with each interrogation, seeing his 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 realms of acceptable. If something really bad were to happen, I’d do something.”

“He clung to the notion that he had a limit, that his threshold lay somewhere, uncrossed and ready to save him, if only he were given the opportunity.”

Whether either Hal or Davis has a limit, and whether they are ever prepared to cross it, or what it would take to push them over the limit is a question to be answered as the novel continues. This theme continues throughout the book though. At times the British army seemed to be quite forceful and didactic towards the locals, and this is what both Hal and Lawrence are railing against, in their own different ways they both seem to have a dilemma between what they have been conditioned to believe, and what they actually believe to be right.

However, having said that this book is about Hal and Clara, and the strain that the war puts on their marriage, that is not what I actually liked best about this book. They go through some horrific things, but their personal story never really grabbed me that much. It all seemed to fall a bit flat where they were concerned. As well as the ideas mentioned above abut where your personal limit is, and what you can actually do about it, which were written about brilliantly in this book, what I actually liked best about this book was the horrific descriptions of warfare, both the guerrilla actions of the opposing side, and the reprehensible actions of the British army. There seems to be a despair throughout the book that this ‘war’ is not really about anything, it is not important and therefore the deaths and horrors involved are all pointless. It’s an interesting idea, in fact suggesting that if it was over territory it would all be ok, but it does a god job of showing how this feeling of pointlessness can affect even the most revered soldier.

“At least a battle-at least they would have the name of a battle to say he died in, not just a row of letters most of them didn’t understand, at least a country to fight against, or defend, not this small, dirty struggle. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his wet hands”


farmlanebooks said...

I also felt that their personal story fell a bit flat. In fact I thought the whole book was a bit flat :-)

It was just far too quiet for me.

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