I may have started reading Sadie Jones' Small Wars simply because I was drawn to the figure on the cover, to that beautifully groomed, 1950s woman leaning against a pale rough wall, her head in her hands, so obviously distressed. She is decorous, genteel — and clearly uncomfortable. And human discomfort is a literary situation to which I'm drawn.
In her short literary career, Jones has shown herself a maven of discomfort. She writes of sensitive, intelligent people adrift in societies run according to arbitrary social rules, the morality of convenience and the repression of disruptive feelings. Her lead characters are sympathetic (to the reader, anyway) misfits.
Jones' first novel telegraphed this theme by its title. The Outcast is a family tale, set in England in the middle of the last century. It's about a middle-class boy who watches his mother drown and then must deal with his emotions by himself as everyone around him retreats behind conventional repression. As he grows up, the boy increasingly cannot reconcile what he feels with how everyone around him acts. He is eventually branded a societal outcast, which Jones sees as liberating.
In Small Wars, Jones' second novel, the theme is similar, but the setting makes it a much compelling read than The Outcast. Small Wars tells the story of a thoroughly decent British Army major, Hal Treherne, and his wife, Clara (the intriguing figure of the cover). It's 1956, and Hal's been posted to Cyprus, assigned to help lead the British army's efforts to hang on to one of the last remaining fragments of its empire. The Trehernes, swaddled in the insularity of the British middle class, arrive in Cyprus ready to do their dutiful best for what they assume is a just and noble cause.
Reality penetrates the thick wall of British army decorum only gradually. Eventually, both Hal and Clara must face this world as it actually is: Cyprus is an impoverished, bleached land, whose people are at odds with themselves as well as the British. As for the gallant war effort Hal is supposed to help lead:
There was no truth. It was a nothing, laughable Mickey Mouse conflict; it was a sinister time of terror and repression ... There was no heart to it. It had become a thing driving itself with no absolutes to unravel ... never a solution and never, like the conflict itself, a final truth you could point to and say 'There! A solution,' because what is a solution? History doesn't end.
In plopping her characters down in the middle of such a "Mickey Mouse" conflict as Cyprus (which, by the way, she has meticulously researched), Jones sets the decent, loving, innocently conventional Trehernes into the middle of everything they are not. Hal is asked to perform a succession of increasingly brutal and nonsensical acts, which sets his loyalty to (and ambition within) the British army at odds with his innate decency and gentleness. Clara then struggles to love a man who is at war with himself and whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic — and, for one evening, brutal and vile.
Eventually, both Trehernes must decide whether to take shelter in convention or strike out on their own.
What makes Small Wars so elegantly relevant today is that it asks this: How can well-meaning, decent people flourish and wage wars of dubious purpose at the same time? It's a question that resonates deeply in 21st century America, where our own soldiers are currently fighting two "small wars."