Book Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

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The Yellow Birds sets its tone right from the start—a gritty description of the landscape in Al Tafar, Iraq; raw dialogue purposefully at odds with an elevated, poetic prose; soldier John Bartle’s funamental questions about his role, the war, and how to survive, both in battle and also after the war has ended. In the first pages, Powers reveals the protagonist’s primary conflict: He makes it home alive and celebrated, but his friend Murph died overseas, despite Bartle’s promise to Murph’s mother that he would protect her son.

Just like Bartle’s self is shattered by the war, the narrative, too, is fragmented; it meanders from 2004 when Bartle serves in Iraq to 2005 when he returns to Virginia to many moments before, after, and during. Far from being confusing, this technique helps the reader slowly piece the narrator back together, a puzzle we and he try to solve concurrently, until we have readied ourselves to handle the circumstances surrounding Murph’s death. The novel is not linear, and it doesn’t need to be. Like a mind trying to rationalize or comprehend, it goes back and forth, poring over memories and details and tweaking bits until they feel settled in place. It goes without saying that Powers borrows heavily from Tim O’Brien’s playbook. (How could he not, when The Things They Carried practically defines contemporary war stories?) And yes, of course O’Brien does O’Brien better than anyone else, as some reviewers have pointed out. But these tactics don’t detract from the novel’s force or its message, and I think Powers really takes them and makes them his own.

Photo credit: borrowed from the Barnes and Noble website.

Photo credit: borrowed from the Barnes and Noble website.

The story is slow in the best way. At first the plot seems bare—a boy goes to war, his friend dies, he has to sort out the afterward. It’s not stuffed with too many characters or subplot upon subplot. There’s some action and some dialogue, but they don’t drive the novel. Instead, most of its important developments are internal, occurring within Bartle’s head and heart and soul. The reader needs to work to understand. To go to the brink with the narrator and struggle to return. It’s human emotion that Powers’ novel really explores—and in this he undoubtedly succeeds.

Maybe you don’t like war stories, or maybe you prefer breezy reads, or maybe you want all the secrets to be revealed right now because you can’t stand waiting to find out what happened. But even if nothing else about this novels appeals to you, read it for the quality of the prose. A poet first, Powers’ language is at once compelling, philosophical, and lyrical, yet still down to earth when it counts. I didn’t feel that the novel was overwritten, as some have said. As an editor, I might have tightened up a few passages, struck a few lines where the metaphysical ran too far, quibbled on a few word choices. But overall, the words move you: Like a one-two punch, they sock you right in the stomach with horror and insight and fear and the sense that, yes, you know this feeling, even if you’ve never fought in a war or been remotely close to one. Consider this passage, from the first chapter:

“The war had killed thousands by September. Their bodies lined the pocked avenues at irregular intervals. They 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. The war had tried its best to kill us all: man, woman, child. But it had killed fewer than a thousand soldiers like me and Murph. Those numbers still meant something to us as what passed for fall began. Murph and I had agreed. We didn’t want to be the thousandth killed. If we died later, then we died. But let that number be someone else’s milestone.”

And later:

“It seemed silly, but I remembered that mark and what it meant. Eventually, I realized that the marks could not be assembled into any kind of pattern. They were fixed in place. Connecting them would be wrong. They fell where they had fallen. Marks representing the randomness of the war were made at whatever moment I remembered them: disorder predominated. … I eventually accepted the fact that the only equality that lasts is the fact that everything falls away from everything else.”

As a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of both the 2012 Guardian First Book Award and the 2013 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, this novel comes with great expectations. It also has a ridiculously high bar to reach, set by classics like The Things They Carried and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which live on a shelf all their own. Is The Yellow Birds the pinnacle of wartime literature? No. But it’s a damn good addition to the canon and a fantastic book in its own right.

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