Small Wars by Sadie Jones
Small Wars by Sadie Jones
One of the best books I read in 2009 was The Outcast by Sadie Jones – an intense novel about a young boy, a tragedy and it’s aftermath.
So, I was very excited when the newest novel by Sadie Jones, Small Wars, was published recently and it went to the top of my “to read” pile.
Small Wars begins in 1946, with a prologue; we meet Hal Treherne as he graduates from Sandhurst in England, and the girl he loves, Clara Ward. Hal and Clara are married and their grown-up military life begins with a posting to Krefeld in West Germany.
We meet them again in 1956, as Clara and their sixteen-month-old twin girls, Meg and Lottie, join Hal in Cyprus – during the Emergency.
The BBC describes the Emergency, on 10 March 1956.
Archbishop Makarios, the leader of the "enosis" campaign to unify Cyprus with Greece, was arrested for "actively fostering terrorism" and has been deported to the Seychelles. British security forces have searched the archbishop's residence and say they have found one petrol bomb and ten similar bombs. he Greek Cypriot guerrilla group, EOKA - the National Organisation for Cypriot Combatants - threatened to carry out a massive bombing campaign on the island following the decision to deport Archbishop Makarios.
The organisation has been at the forefront of a campaign to end British rule and achieve "enosis" with Greece.
Since last year, EOKA has carried out a number of bomb attacks on the island.
There have also been a series of confrontations with British troops, resulting in casualties on both sides.
Last November, following anti-British riots, the Governor of Cyprus, Sir John Harding, declared a state of emergency on the island.
This is the situation that Hal and Clara find when they begin their time in Cyrus. They are, at first, housed in a civilian area in the town of Limassol, and then are given a house on the base – considered a safer location for a family. Hal is working hard, to prove himself, in this new and demanding job – and Clara begins to find her way as a military officer’s wife.
I grew up in the military – and my father was stationed, with NATO, in Cyprus in 1969 – but our family remained in Canada during that year, for my father Cyprus was an “unaccompanied posting”. I was very surprised to realize that the British soldiers were there with their families.
Hal and Clara love the landscape and the sun – but Clara is fearful of the Cypriots – even the local girl, Adile, who comes to help with the children and the household chores frightens Clara – although she leaves her children with Adile when she and Hal go to the Officer’s Mess for drinks and socializing in the evenings. Hal is now a Major; he has a batman and a driver – the life of an officer.
Clara understands “So conflict is normal and battles are normal, just as White Ladies (the favourite “wives” drink) are drunk within wired compounds and pipe bombs are made in the front rooms of village houses while supper is cooked. Domestic life continues.”
I found myself thinking of Afghanistan and the current situation there – but of course these soldiers do not have their families with them. There is no one that they love in danger – but there is also no one to love them, support and comfort them at the end of the day. Not that Hal finds much comfort in Clara. Hal had closed his heart – it is the only way he can cope with the brutality that he is facing each day – no only from the Cypriots but from his own troops. He is shocked and outraged at the bestial behaviour of some of his men – and goes to his superior officer, Colonel Burroughs, with information, seeking guidance.
Hal has experienced a horrific scene of terrorism on what appeared to be a beautiful and benign beach – and now a breakdown of authority and evidence of improper behaviour in the ranks. He becomes more remote “Hal glanced at this watch, thinking he should let Clara know where he was, but then forgot about her, focusing on what was ahead, not on his wife, who was safe at home with supper and children”. The life of a military family.
Military life goes on – the affairs, the drinking, the wives and children together, the men off on maneuvers.
As the military situation heats up, and Clara discovers she is pregnant again, Hal insists that she go to Nicosia where he believes she and the children will be safer and he will not need to think about her – or her safety – and his own growing detachment. I wondered at this point why she did not return to England, and her home there, and just let Hal work out this posting on his own.
The Suez Canal Crisis also begins at this time with a British led military attack on Egypt, following Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. There is increased tension on the base in Cyprus as terrorism escalates. Hal finds himself writing yet another letter of condolence to the family of a dead soldier “the pen slippery with sweat in his hand”. He cannot still his mind as the terrible things he has witnessed play over and over again. Hal feels that he has no ally in his attempt to address the situation within the ranks – he is disillusioned with the career he had wanted since the time he was young boy, son of a military family. Drinking provides no respite.
We are reading with a sense that something awful is about to happen – to Hal? to Clara? to the children?
When tragedy strikes in Nicosia, the Colonel’s wife takes over, as only a Colonel’s wife can – and finally Clara and the children are sent back to England. And Hal makes a choice that will change his life forever.
I’ve already said too much. This novel moves at a slower pace than The Outcast and is not as intense in its suspense, but it is a beautifully written and as sensitive to the rise and fall of the human heart – and truly a lovely book.