Monday, 12 April 2010

Writing the tricky second novel

Former screenwriter Sadie Jones took the literary world by storm two years ago with The Outcast, her debut novel. Set in the stifling world of post-war Surrey, it was a runaway success, selling 400,000 copies, winning the Costa First Novel Award and becoming a firm favourite with book clubs.

Second novels are notoriously difficult so a lot is riding on Jones’s eagerly-anticipated follow-up. But Small Wars, published in paperback this week (April 15), is a fine novel, as assured and elegant as her first.

Major Hal Treherne is driven by two passions – his burgeoning military career and his adored wife Clara, the sister of his army friend James. After six years in Germany, where he spent his time “overseeing exercises that were almost uniformly without incident” and never once saw “a shot fired in anger,” he is keen to do the job he was trained to do. That is, to serve his country and lead his men.

Hal is delighted, therefore, when he is posted to defend the British colony of Cyprus in 1956. Clara and their small twin daughters sail out to join him and the family moves into married quarters on the army base. Clara enjoys days on the beach, Shakespearian readings organised by the Colonel’s wife and drinks at the officers’ mess.

One army wife claims Cyprus is just like “Cornwall in summer.” In fact it’s anything but. As Jones explains, the conflict had seen “a fledgling desire for independence harden into a terrorist campaign,” and Clara learns to her cost that bombings, ambushes and street fights are a terrifying daily occurrence.

As well as leading a series of bloody and often brutal skirmishes, Hal has to confront issues like rape, torture and murder. As he struggles with his own personal crisis, the beliefs and values he has adhered to all his life are called into question. Meanwhile Clara grows more and more fearful, both of the volatile situation her daughters and unborn baby are being exposed to and of her increasingly distant and unpredictable husband.

Like The Outcast, Small Wars is characterised by Jones’s cool, calm prose and keen eye for detail. From the idyllic home-counties villa of Clara’s childhood to the sun-drenched Cypriot hillsides where the guerrillas hide out from the British troops, her writing is vivid and compelling. Meticulously researched and emotionally powerful, this is a second novel to be proud of.

Small Wars by Sadie Jones. Published by Vintage, £7.99.

Emma's rating - ****

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