Small Wars, By Sadie Jones

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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 grey-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.

The only child of a military family, Hal has been preparing for action all his life, but this isn't the heroic war he had in mind. A hidden landmine on a beach where his children play tip his troops into a depraved reprisal. Forced to confront disturbing allegations about his men, Hal's hard-wired loyalty to crown and country turns to disgust. His confusion spills over into his home life, and his once passionate marriage starts to breed its own set of brutalities.

As in her prize-winnning debut The Outcast, also set in the Fifties, Jones clipped prose captures the polite emotional shorthand of the time, adding to the narrative's quiet power. The novel's arresting visuals -- a beach strewn with Guernica-style body parts, the "acid" sunlight flooding a winter court-martial – linger long after the book's close.

In a novel that resonates with contemporary parallels, Jones is unusual among women writers for focusing as much on the thrills of front-line action as its psychological fallout. If Hal's eventual breakdown is well-semaphored, the journey there is a compelling one.