Book review: Donna Rifkind reviews 'Small Wars' by Sadie Jones

By Donna Rifkind
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 6, 2010; C08


By Sadie Jones

Harper. 376 pp. $24.99

There are many small wars raging in Sadie Jones's second novel, each savage in its own intimate way. They take place amid an actual war, waged during the mid-1950s, in which local insurgents on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus fought to free their country from British colonial rule by seeking union with Greece. The novel's other skirmishes, fought in the shadows of this conflict, are harder to measure but no less turbulent. They include bitter marital standoffs, power struggles among soldiers of differing ranks, and at least one man's fierce internal wrestlings with notions about conscience, loyalty, duty, honor.

As in "The Outcast," a 2009 winner of England's Costa First Novel Award, Jones proves adept at exposing scores of unseen cruelties that skulk through households, neighborhoods and, this time, a military installation. Her storytelling style, with its combination of purity and harshness, can provoke feelings of clenched excruciation in even the most unflinching readers.

The novel's central figure is Hal Treherne, a young British army major who's been transferred to Cyprus after a dull six-year stint in Germany. Hoping to see some action in this new assignment, which the officers' wives mordantly call the "Sunshine Posting," Hal is quickly drawn into a vicious call-and-response cycle of terrorism, with the steady pressure of the insurgents' violence inciting ever more hysterical responses -- including torture, assassination and unrestrained rioting -- from the British soldiers, whose atrocities Hal finds himself increasingly unable to control. It is sickening work even for the officers who are untroubled by conscience; for those who are haunted by doubt, it's close to impossible.

Hal's cold plunge into moral crisis is made worse by his emotional paralysis. Even as his unwillingness to choose between "what was right, and what was proper" reaches a breaking point, the only feelings he permits himself are crippling shame and desperate isolation. His father and uncles had distinguished themselves in gloriously unambiguous battles during the Great War; his grandfather enjoyed similar grand triumphs in both Boer wars. As a boy Hal had played with toy soldiers in a hall hung with magnificent family portraits of the army men he idolized. "He had been surrounded by legions," Hal recalls. But now, seeing no clear resolution to this "small, dirty struggle," "it came suddenly and coldly into his head that, really, there had been nobody else there with him at all."

As that sense of crushing degradation fills Hal's working hours, it also infiltrates his domestic life. His wife, Clara, has recently joined him in Cyprus, along with their twin 16-month-old daughters, and it's her job to try to conquer her fear of the unpredictable violence surrounding her while Hal spends long days and nights in danger of his own. Clara's forays into the stiff cocktail parties at the officers' mess aren't much consolation: "The whole place had a hasty, brand-new feeling, like a stage set," while the frantic, incessant drinking and flirtation frequently turn abusive.

It's not long before the garrison's poisoned atmosphere leaks into Hal and Clara's house, where Hal's cruelty ignites a series of events that will threaten his career and their future. Interestingly, although their developing marital discord seems ripe for lushly orchestrated theatricality -- this is the 1950s, after all, with an emotional milieu that makes one think of "Far From Heaven" and "Peyton Place" -- Jones's rendering, with its clinical precision, is the opposite of melodrama.

The author employed a similar tonal switcheroo in her first novel, which was also set in the 1950s and coerced readers into the same ruthless, unsettling intimacy. There are a few important differences in the new book, though. Jones has ironed out some bad habits, including the occasional second-rate Hemingway imitations that plagued "The Outcast." And she has managed, subtly but unmistakably, to suggest parallels between the "small wars" of England's waning 20th-century empire and those of contemporary America's without overpowering the story she's trying to tell. To this grave account of degradation -- from great wars to small, from certainty to doubt, from romance to resignation -- Jones brings surprising reserves of energy and finesse.

Rifkind is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.

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