Fiction – hardcover; Sceptre; 240 pages; 2012.
You’ve probably heard a lot about this book already. It’s been reviewed here, there and everywhere. And just a couple of weeks ago it won the Guardian First Book Award. It is, quite frankly, an astonishingly good first novel. It is not only a devastating account of the Iraq war, it is a compelling exploration of the aftermath on those who return home shell-shocked and psychologically damaged.
A promise that can’t be kept
The author, Kevin Power, served in the US Army in 2004 and 2005, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq. The Yellow Birds might be fiction, but I expect quite a lot of it is rooted in fact.
The first person narrator is John Bartle, 21, who befriends Daniel Murphy, 18, when the pair of them are in training at Fort Dix. For no other reason than they are both from Richmond, Virginia, Bartle takes “Murph” under his wing, a bit like an older brother would, and then makes a promise to Murphy’s mother that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
“And you’re going to look out for him, right?” she asked.
“Um, yes, ma’am.”
“And Daniel, he’s doing a good job?”
“Yes, ma’am, very good.” How the hell should I know, lady? I wanted to say. I barely knew the guy. Stop. Stop asking me questions. I don’t want to be accountable. I don’t know anything about this.
“John, promise me that you’ll take care of him.”
“Of course.” Sure, sure, I thought. Now you reassure me and I’ll go back and go to bed.
“Nothing’s gonna happen to him, right? Promise that you’ll bring him home to me.”
“I promise,” I said. “I promise I’ll bring him home to you.”
Of course, it’s glaringly obvious that Murph is not going to return home from war, but the manner in which he dies and the events leading up to his death are far from straightforward.
I could say the same about the structure of this book, which swings backwards and forwards in time between Bartle’s pre-war life, his tour of duty and his repatriation. This fragmented and disorientating format serves to mirror Bartle’s mindset — it is an ingenious way to tell a story that is very much focused on the psychological fallout of war.
This means The Yellow Birds is not an easy read. If you like linear narratives, you may well find this one confusing, although it is broken into clearly signposted sections — “September 2004: Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq” and “November 2005: Richmond, Virginia”, for instance — to help guide your way.
A confronting and often disturbing read
The Yellow Birds is also confronting — as you would expect from a story about war. But even though I’ve read countless books of this nature (and grisly true crime), there were many scenes depicted here that I found particularly gruesome and disturbing (a booby-trapped body on a bridge, for example) and even throwaway lines — “The bodies were hidden in alleys, were found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green, allergic now to life” — possessed the devastating power to shock.
But it was the detached, numb-with-grief voice of Bartle upon his return to the US that I found most chilling. This glimpse into a returned soldier’s mind, unable to deal with the future based on what had happened in his past, is what I will remember most about this harrowing, heartbreaking tale. His loneliness, his despair, his anger — and his embarrassment — resonates off the page.
The Yellow Birds has been compared to Erich Maria Remarque’s classic Great War tale All Quiet on the Western Front — and with good reason. This is not a book that glorifies war or makes heroes out of those who take part; instead it illuminates the futility (and predictability), and leaves you with the burning question, what is the point of so much loss of life?