Small Wars, By Sadie Jones

The disillusionment of a once-eager soldier fuels this superb novel about 1950s British life
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We first meet Hal Traherne at Sandhurst, in the rain. It is July 1946, and the young Princess Elizabeth is inspecting her new officers. There is a smell of damp wool and the landscape drips grey-green, but Hal is happy. The only child of a military family, whose father and grandfather have served with distinction in major wars, his future had been mapped out for him since the days of his playing alone with toy soldiers on the landing of a chilly house in Warminster. Eagerly he welcomes it, as do his parents: this is the only situation in which his upright father is able to express, or possibly even to feel, emotion.

Ten years later, Hal has courted and married the lovely Clara, the sister of a fellow officer. Rapidly promoted to Major, he is sent to Cyprus where she joins him with their little twin daughters, and where the main action of this remarkable novel takes place. It is the 1950s, and EOKA terrorists are fighting for independence from Britain and union with Greece. But Cyprus is a vital outpost of Empire and this uprising must be quashed. It may not be the major theatre of war for which Hal has longed; as Clara says, to comfort herself, "It's hardly the Blitz, is it?" But Hal knows what must be done and, as always, he does it.

What follows is the story of his disillusionment. The terrible, all-too familiar truth is that there is no such thing as a small war. Gradually, Hal becomes involved in incidents of increasing violence and horror. He is appalled to discover that a young man – a boy, really – he'd sent for interrogation, has been tortured to reveal information using something akin to water-boarding. Can "our side" really behave like this? Then, after a land-mine explodes in front of him, on a beach where his own children have played, his men go berserk and exact terrible revenge on innocent townspeople, increasing Hal's devastating sense of impropriety. When this incident is hushed up, his previously unshakeable loyalty turns to disgust. He is unable to sleep, unable to talk to Clara, unable to bear the "intolerable sweetness" of his daughters. He sends them away, to what he hopes is safety.

Sadie Jones is far too young to remember the 1950s, yet she has made this unlovely decade her own. As in her magnificent first novel, The Outcast, she recreates a time when people knew their place, wives were supportive, emotional displays were intolerable and warm gin the ultimate solace. Not only does she capture with perfect, understated accuracy the atmosphere of the period, but she presents the international political situation and the conditions in which military families were expected to live with generous understanding. Unlike far too many of her contemporaries, she never parades her research, never resorts to stereotypes. Her prose is direct, undecorated, irresistibly dynamic and immensely powerful.

Jones' real subject is disappointment, and the possibility of redemption. Hal is profoundly disappointed by the ineradicable flaws he discovers in his supposedly heroic career; Clara in his inability to confide in her; his parents and senior officers in his apparent refusal to toe the line. But the reader is ultimately exhilarated, for Hal, once removed from the organisations which have all his life supported him, becomes the person we want him to be.

Second novels are notoriously difficult, often failing to fulfil the promise of the first, but Small Wars is at least as good as The Outcast. In fact, it is probably better, and praise doesn't come much higher.