Small Wars, By Sadie Jones

A dirty war, gleamingly captured
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The Independent Culture

Hal Traherne, a young officer in the British army, is hungry for active service. Posted to Cyprus in 1956 at the height of the Emergency, he's accompanied by his wife, Clara, and twin daughters. Within weeks of exchanging the green fields of England for the glaring heat of Limassol, Hal's visions of decency and duty start to crumble in the face of a dirty war for which he is totally unprepared.

As in her award-winning debut, The Outcast, also set in the 1950s, Sadie Jones shows herself fascinated by an era in which even the most anguished mental states could only find expression via a polite emotional shorthand. Barracks life is defined by rituals and parades, but the random warfare being waged in the surrounding hills – hidden landmines, child decoys – eventually tips his troops into the kind of depraved reprisals that wouldn't be out of place in Abu Ghraib.

From a subdued start, Jones's novel gains serious momentum. Hal is forced to confront disturbing allegations about his troops, and to question his own obeisance to military values. His confusion spills over into his home life, and his once quietly passionate marriage starts to breed its own set of brutalities. Clara's new circle of friends trigger a series of mess-room betrayals that recall the period pieces of Paul Scott and Olivia Manning.

Jones's clipped prose is freighted with arresting imagery: from a bloodied beach strewn with Guernica-style body parts to a court martial with a room of "stiff-decorated uniforms" suddenly lit up by an "acid" winter sun. She only departs from good practice with some spoon-feeding of historical events – news of Suez is transmitted via a Pathé broadcast.

In this exciting novel that resonates with contemporary parallels, Jones is unusual among women writers in focusing as much on the thrills and terrors of front-line action as its psychological fallout. If the events of Hal's homecoming are well-semaphored, the middle section gives this elegantly conceived work its fire. It's a movie waiting to happen.