‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers

Yellow-birds

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?

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9 thoughts on “‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers

  1. I have bought this book for my husband for Christmas, with ulterior motives. It sounds like an amazing story. I have recently finished Karl Marlante’s book Matterhorn, about the Vietnam War, which was a high impact book. I really felt like I was out on patrol with the characters in the book. It sounds like this one is just as good – I can’t wait!

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  2. I think this is one of those books that will stay with me for a long time… it’s quite a devastating read. I’ve had Matterhorn on my wishlist for years, but never known anyone to have read it. If you want to read more about Vietnam, I recommend “Chickenhawk” by Robert Mason. It’s non-fiction but very, very good.

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  3. My opinion of “The Yellow Birds” was not so positive as yours. I thought it was a quite cliched war novel that doesn’t begin to really cover a lot of facets of the war, and that it was over-praised, because it was the first serious novel about the war.

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  4. I think it would be a different book if it was about the war; its really about the impact of one tour of duty on one soldier. And yes, it received a lot of praise, but having read the book I dont think that praise is unwarranted. I found it a very moving read – it is the dislocation of the narrator that most affected me.

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  5. I alas loathed this book, so much so that even though I would see how important it was, and who it should be read by many, I simply can’t review it for the bile that might pour out. Ha!
    I agree it was gruesome and the storyline was far from linear, neither of those things bothered me so much, it was the writing which, to me, just seemed really pretentious and clichéd. Too flowery. From the double alliteration onwards. I think I would have liked it sparser.
    Rant over. Sorry. I haven’t been able to get my own feelings out on paper. Glad you enjoyed it though.

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  6. I think this is one of those books that divides opinion, Simon. I really liked the detached voice and thought it captured the horror of what Bartle had experienced and witnessed and his guilt for having actually killed people. I hadnt noticed the flowery language or clichés but perhaps if I read it again those things might annoy me. Alas I borrowed this from the library so I wont be reading it any time again soon. 😉

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  7. Kevin Powers has written a war novel with a power and grace that few have accomplished His novel of the singular experience of one tortured Pfc ring clear and true as mountain water. There is no doubt–at all– that the author has written with great clarity and precision from the first person’s well of authenticity.
    This is a story that strikes the viscera, a terrible and honestly
    writ tale of one soldier’s love and grief for a member of his platoon
    whom he had promised to bring home intact. The theme of the title recurs over and over with the references to avian life hovering through and over the smoking fields of death and catastrophe, and then arising again at home, back in Virginia, when the narrative moves literally to canaries from the coal mines–who once set free quickly return to the cages of their imprisonment.
    Powers writes with poetic intensity, and as the drama unfolds it becomes impossible to stop reading. His spare, careful prose invites us to see how
    the horror of war becomes the daily fare, but with an imprint that lasts forever (or at least until death intervenes). The convoluted timeline of this
    fierce, angry book reflects the strange, unmoored, and terrifying history of America’s longest war.
    Read this book. For me, it is the first truly magnificent reading to emerge from America’s long and ambivalent war in Iraq. It belongs on the shelf with the writing of Erich Remarque, Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brian, Michael Herr, Stephen Wright. … and more than any, Philip Caputo’s masterpiece: Rumors of War.

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  8. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Paul. The bird metaphor is interesting… the same kind of imagery occurs in David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter, which is about a soldier from Australia going to the First World War…

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