All three of 2010’s Orange Prize nominees discussed here already (Lorrie Moore’s At the Gate of the Stairs, M.J. Hyland’s This is How, Rebecca Gowers’ The Twisted Heart) were relatively quick reads for me. Sadie Jones’ Small Wars? It took me a full week to read the first 100 pages and, when I look back at my reading log to try to understand why I was reading so slowly, I can’t figure it out: I started and finished three full books in that time.
If I wasn’t so determined about the Orange Prize longlist this year, I don’t think I’d have kept on with this one, not because I disliked it, but just wasn’t compelled enough to return to it with so many other paged temptations here at hand. But then I got to the end of Part One, and then just a little further, and I started to feel the rhythm. By the time I was two-thirds of the way through, I was getting up in the night to read just another chapter or two and I finished in a rush. So the reading experience of this one was mixed, indeed, but I do think the impression left by Small Wars will be a lasting one.
Clara is a soldier’s wife and has followed her husband, Hal, to Cyprus, bringing with her their two young daughters. It is not perceived as a particularly risky posting — relatively speaking it is a Small War — but the unpredictable actions of the civilians who are battling for unity with Greece make for considerable unease and anxiety. Clara tries to hide her concerns from Hal, wanting to be seen as supportive and a willing helpmate, and Hal hides his stresses, wanting to be seen as capable and authoritative: they are both overwhelmed by the tension and yet cannot express this to each other.
Sadie Jones uses remarkably simple language in straightforward sentences to describe even the most horrifying events, like the explosion on the beach; somehow this presentation makes an event like that more vivid, cinematic even. But equally evocative are the scenes of everyday life: going shopping, children with fevers, plays read aloud, drinks served in a bar. The novel is structured in such a way as to reveal the parallel tensions, on the personal and political fronts: marital disagreements and martial skirmishes.
“The usual polarity of extraordinary and ordinary, which characterised life in Cyprus, was made more extreme again.” In many ways, Clara’s concerns are banal (e.g. her husband is absorbed by his work and relatively disengaged from family life) but also extraordinary (e.g. she must soothe her twins not from when they might wake from a nightmare but from the sound of explosions in the night). A Small War, perhaps, but this family is still inhabiting a warzone and navigating the ordinary and the extraordinary exacts a tremendous toll on both Clara and Hal.
Neither openly discusses their concerns. After the beach explosion Clara talks, instead, to the interpreter (Lawrence Davis, who has consistently had trouble accepting the methods of torture employed to garner information from the civilians about resistance efforts and later finds his ethical stance that much more complex). She confesses how “dreadful it was. ‘I can’t take it in, still,’ and he answered, ‘Yes. It really was. Awful.’ The moment of sympathy between them was a relief, like a glass of cold water — soothing. Clara felt gratitude to him, and realised with shock that she and Hal had not made any allusion to it, not even this most basic recognition of what had happened.” 156
Clara expresses herself only briefly and Hal, too, struggles to hide the impact of his work but horrific images play before him whenever he closes his eyes or pauses. “He wasn’t surprised at being haunted like that; he blocked out the distress as well as he could, but he thought it would be better if he could learn to control his night-time hours as well as he did the daytime ones.” In an attempt to control a situation which is inherently uncontrollable, Hal’s sense of separation from Clara increases.
“Hal left Burroughs’s [the colonel’s] house and walked back to the Land Rover. He glanced at his watch, thinking he should let Clara know where he was, but then he forgot about her, focusing on what was ahead, not on his wife, who was safe at home with supper and children, and not concerned with any of this.” And his disengagement urges Clara to escalate her own sense of disconnection: “Clara kissed them [her daughters], she smiled and spoke to them. She had put on a character — the cheerful mother — as she might have put on a dress. What a marvellous effort that was, [Hal] he thought, but he had seen her move from flat nothingness, to girding herself, to this brave artifice, and was chilled.”
At the point wherein the situation began to breakdown, simultaneously on the personal and military fronts, I became increasingly engaged in the novel’s Small Wars. I had picked up this novel from the library shelf many times and was pleased to see it included in the Orange Prize longlist — an immediate excuse to borrow it and make time to read it — and now I think I’ll be looking for an excuse to read The Outcast as well. A slow start, but a satisfied finish.