Small Wars – Sadie Jones

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 Long listed for the Orange Prize 2010

I enjoyed Sadie Jones’ last novel, The Outcast, to some extent, but found the ending to be a bit of an anti-climax. When I saw her latest book had made the Orange long list I decided to give her another try.

Small Wars is set on Cyprus during the 1950s Emergency, a time when the British defended Cyprus against a colony of Cypriots determined to form a union with Greece. The book follows Hal, a young British soldier who is posted to Cyprus. He brings his wife and daughters with him, but their relationship is put under pressure by the fear of violence.

I’m afraid I wasn’t a big fan of Small Wars. The pace of the book was quite slow and there were several long, meandering sections where I began to lose interest. The writing was simple and easy to read, but this simplicity meant that the real horror of some situations wasn’t adequately described:

The people were made to lie down on the floor of the trucks, because there were so many of them, and if the soldiers made them lie down, they could be layered to make room. There were reports of suffocation from this stacking of live bodies, but later, the British, investigating, found no bodies.

In the hands of a different author that same scene could have been very hard to read. I can imagine the fear of those poor people, but reading the above passage provoked no emotion in me. The same is true for much of the book – there were some terrible events, but they were rushed over and so the horror could be largely ignored.

The main theme of Small Wars was the way war can affect relationships. The book concentrated on characterisation rather than plot; this gentle observation of the feelings will be of interest to some, but I’m afraid it was all too quiet for me.

Recommended to those who want to read about war in a quiet, gentle way.

What others had to say:

It’s a complex study, yet it’s easy to read and progresses very quickly!  S Krishna’s Books

 ….notable for its psychological depth and characterizations. California Literary Review

 ….this follow-up shows that she is no one-hit wonder. Times Online

Have you read The Outcast or Small Wars?

Do you think this book has a chance at making the Orange short list?


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24 Comments

  1. Iris says:

    I’ve been doubting about buying this book, seeing it everywhere and it’s being displayed centrally in Dutch bookshops at the moment. I thought I’d wait for your review, but it seems I am now still doubting: Not sure if I’d be in the category of people “who want to read about war in a quiet, gentle way”, I might be.

    You’re reading more of the Orange Prize Long List right? Any that are absolutely a must-read?

    1. Jackie says:

      Iris, I have read a few of the Orange long list. There are none I’d describe as “must-reads” so far, but I have been most impressed by:
      The Help (fantastic story, but not literary enough to win – probably will now I said that!)
      This is How (excellent, but bleak)
      The Rehearsal (very good, but can’t decide if it is trying too hard)
      Hope that helps!

  2. Charlie says:

    I adored The Outcast but Small Wars, well your review summed up my feelings pretty well. It went on for too long and although Hal had problems that were totally understandable I don’t think Jones made a good enough job of describing why, as in to say the reader had to do a lot of thinking for themselves. I found that surprising because the opposite was true in The Outcast, there was lots of useful description.

    1. Jackie says:

      Charlie, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time!

      I think the Outcast was a much more emotional read than Small Wars. They were very different books, but I felt that all the better bits of The Outcast were left out of this book. It is good to know that I’m not alone in thinking this way.

  3. This isn’t one of the Orange longlist nominees that I have on hand but Verity kindly said she would loan me her copy; I’m not attracted to it but will read it if it makes the shortlist. From what I have read of the contenders so far, however, I don’t think it will make the shortlist (but not having read it I obviously can’t say for sure).

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I would be surprised if this made the short list, but my prediction record has been very poor so far!

  4. raidergirl3 says:

    I liked it well enough, moreso by the end. There were some slow parts for sure.
    I think I liked it better than The Outcast though. (just to muddy up the waters!) I liked the look at the marriage, and I could, to be cliche, identify with the characters more.

    Here’s my review

    1. Jackie says:

      raidergirl3, I am surprised that you enjoyed this more than the Outcast – that really does muddy the waters! I didn’t identify with these characters more – I thought she managed to capture the more youthful Outcast characters more convincingly – it just shows how different we all are!

  5. I have to say that quote doesn’t make me want to read this book at all! Is it representative of her writing style?

    1. Jackie says:

      avisannschild, I chose that quote because it was one of the most extreme examples of gentleness in what should have been a horrible situation, but I would say it is fairly representative of the rest of the book.

      1. Thanks, Jackie! I’m definitely going to pass on this one. Her writing style seems really awkward to me.

  6. Sandy says:

    From the reviews I’ve read so far, I’ve been on the fence with this one. War isn’t gentle, so I’m not sure I want to read a story where it is portrayed that way.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, It is a difficult situation. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the horror I read about, but reading about war in this passive way makes me realise how important it is to read the shocking truth.

  7. Anna says:

    It definitely sounds like an interesting approach to war–most books emphasize the horror. I can’t decide whether or not my curiosity toward how the book is written will make me pick up the book or not.

    1. Jackie says:

      Anna, I suppose that it does have originality on its side! I haven’t read such a gentle war book before.

  8. Wendy says:

    I was a fan of Jones’ novel The Outcast (my review), so I have been looking at Small Wars and tempted to pick up a copy. I’ve been reading a lot of slow type novels yet, though, so I think I need a change of pace for now.

  9. Wendy says:

    Boy, that last sentence was a mess…can you tell I had a long day of work?!??! What I meant to say was…I have been reading a lot of slow novels, though, so I think I need a change of pace for now. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Wendy, I like changing the pace of things all the time too. I’m hoping Angelolgy will satisfy my craving for a fast paced book!

  10. Julie says:

    I’ve been seeing this book around, but never picked it up. After your review I don’t think it’s for me. Thanks for the honest review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Julie, This book does seem to be getting a lot of shelf space in UK book shops – I’m pleased that you found my review useful.

  11. Tom Bryant says:

    I don’t get this ‘gentle’ thing at All about this book. I thought it was profound, moving and incredibly intense. The characters bounced off the page, the war sections were angry and subdued (not gentle!!), and all in all I’m really stunned it hasn’t made the shortlist. Does no-one else agree with me? This is the first time I’ve contributed to your blog – or anybody’s! – but I have to say Small Wars was a much better book for me than The Outcast, which made me cry and was a great first novel, but nothing like as mature a work as this great book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Tom, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time! It is great to hear that you loved this book. I think it is all down to personal taste. I have heard some people say that they preferred this to The Outcast, but most seem to like The Outcast better.

      I think you might be right by describing this book as subdued rather than gentle, but I prefer things to be a little more active. Although the characters were well formed I didn’t really connect with them – it was all too passive for me. Perhaps this does come from a mature work though?

      Sorry you were disappointed this didn’t make the short list – I’m hoping there are some stunning books on there for me to discover!

  12. Soul Muser says:

    This is my first time here on this blog! Love your reviews!! I felt the SAME for Small Wars. I loved the Outcast, and I was so disappointed with this one. I half felt like shouting “Hal, speak up!!” He irritated more than me feeling for him – and the distance you feel for the characters made the book a letdown.

    1. Jackie says:

      Soul Muser, Thank you for the kind words. It is good to know I’m not alone in my disappointment of this one.

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