Friday, 23 August 2013

Book Review: Small Wars by Sadie Jones are countries receiving little attention from the public unless they are the venue of disaster or scandal. Cyprus is one of them and I decided to pay a brief literary visit to this remote outpost of the European Union. Today the island seems a quiet place, but its strategically important location in the Eastern Mediterranean always tempted foreign powers, the Ottomans and the British being only the last in a long row. The British colony became a sovereign country in 1960 after decades of growing tension and violence. In her novel Small Wars Sadie Jones depicts the situation in the late 1950s.

Sadie Jones was born in London, UK, in 1967 as daughter of poet Evan Jones and actress Joanna Jones. After years of travelling many countries and working in different kinds of jobs she settled down as a scriptwriter in London. Her literary work has been rejected by publishers for many years, but with the award winning novel The Outcast she made her breakthrough as a writer in 2008. Small Wars followed already in 2009. Her latest novel is The Uninvited Guest published in 2012. Sadie Jones lives in London, UK.

Small Wars is the story of the British regular officer Major Henry ‘Hal’ Treherne and his wife Clara who arrives with their twin baby daughters Lotti and Meg in Limassol, Cyprus, in January 1956, about a month after her husband’s transfer from Germany to the garrison of Episkopi. Guerrilla rebels are fighting with all means, including bomb attacks and assassination, against the colonial troops. The constant threat gives occasion to regular raids in the villages during which soldiers are running wild and destroy the property of the villagers or worse, especially when a British soldier has been wounded or killed in an attempt shortly before. A serious incident during such a raid reported to Hal and then covered up makes him question not only his orders, but also his own role as an honourable soldier on the spot and British presence on Cyprus altogether. Meanwhile Clara fights back her growing fears and hides them from Hal. Relations between them cool and they hardly talk to each other anymore. Clara feels safer when they move from the small house in Limassol to premises on the military base, but then the terror reaches the beach belonging to Episkopi garrison and Hal is there to witness it. Hal is tormented by recurring nightmares and finds it increasingly difficult to reconcile the atrocities committed by his own men with his pronounced sense of honour. Before soon the emotional stress of Clara and Hal held back for months explodes. They have a fight. Hal sends Clara to Nikosia because he wants her out of his way as well as because he believes that it’s safer there for her and the children. During a shopping tour in the old town an assassin shoots down Clara and her friend Grace. When Hal accompanies his convalescent wife and the twins to be flown back to England, he takes a bold decision.

The novel ends in the autumn of 1956, but the violence in Cyprus didn’t stop then, nor a few years later when the island finally gained independence from the British Empire in 1960. Hostilities between the Greek and the Turkish population continued, even increased. A United Nations Peacekeeping Force was sent to Cyprus in 1964 and has been controlling the buffer zone between the territories of the Greek majority and the Turkish minority ever since. In 1974 Turkey occupied the Northern part of the island and a Turkish Republic of Cyprus was proclaimed which has never been recognized by any country other than Turkey, though.

As an author Sadie Jones employs a matter-of-fact tone to give a faithful account of the Small Wars which shook Cyprus at the time and which happen to have some more recent counterparts in the world. In fact the story has been inspired by the war in Afghanistan. Much and in-depth research has been necessary to paint an authentic picture of the small pleasures and constant fears which soldiers and their families experienced in Cyprus. Many loving marriages like that of Hal and Clara will have been put to test by the constant emotional stress. Sadie Jones manages to always stay realistic – as far as I’m in the position to judge it – and she keeps a good balance between thrilling and calming scenes, between ups and downs. Some dialogues contain banalities which don’t add anything to the story, but on the whole the novel is captivating as well as easy to read.

Personally, I devoured Small Wars by Sadie Jones. It’s certainly among the best books which have come my way this year. Although the novel is pure fiction, it allows a glimpse at certain aspects of British colonial history and life in a terror war of independence. In my opinion it’s a read which deserves being highly recommended.

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