I don’t read much war literature, but something about The Yellow Birds grabbed me.
Maybe it’s the book’s intriguing title or its captivatingly simple cover. Perhaps it was because it won The Guardian’s First Book Award, and the first four pages are filled with praise from Homeland’s Damian Lewis, Man Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel, and BBC Radio 2’s Simon Mayo, as well as being named one of the Books of the Year by publications like New York Times, Scotsman and Evening Standard.
Likely, it was because it answers one simple question about Iraq: What was it like over there?
Kevin Powers, a former machine gunner for the US Army, delivers an affecting, haunting and beautifully-realised novel that deserves all the accolades it’s received.
The Yellow Birds somehow manages to describe the indescribable with layered, rhythmic prose and minimalist-but-effective dialogue. The plot is pleasingly simple yet focussed as one soldier makes a promise he can’t possibly keep to a fellow soldier’s mother: “I promise I’ll bring him home to you.”Powers masterfully uses this inevitability to play with the reader with a refreshingly non-linear narrative that gives insight into the life of Private John Bartle; not just during the war, but also after he comes home – if you can call it that.
The book cleverly cements the idea that fighting in Iraq, and that question, is just the beginning – and, paradoxically, the end. We’ve, perhaps, become desensitised somewhat to the endless war, and to the fact that a human life is transformed entirely when he or she becomes a soldier. I was horrified over many of the book’s details as it trod the line between fiction and fact. It’s visceral and choking, but always honest and thought-provoking.
The way Powers questions what is right and what is wrong resonates long after you turn the final page.
But when Bartle comes home, essentially an empty shell, it’s just as surprising. What do soldiers do once the war has passed them by? How do they feel as we celebrate their homecomings after they’ve left their friends behind, broken and dead? And what happens once we forget about them?
Of course, this all sounds deeply depressing, but Powers balances out the terror, the chaos and the numbness with blindingly beautiful writing; his varying sentence structure, poetic language, and emotive descriptions. The examination of relationships from-the-heart. It all contrasts so wonderfully with the raw and vivid circumstances, the rough and crude dialogue.
The Yellow Birds rounds off satisfactorily, as if you’re leaving a friend in his new-found calmness. It’s powerful and heart-breaking. It would take a stone heart to weather the journey without at least a tear in the eye.
The concluding reading group questions are a bit jarring – but then, I’ve never been in a reading group. Maybe they act as an ideal ‘Starter for Ten.’ The interview with Kevin is a worthy addition, however, as the author admits: “the cliché, in my case, was true: I thought that the army would ‘make me a man’.”
It’s a very personal book but one with speaks harsh truths about humanity during wartime, and Powers’ concluding passage, in which he briefly mulls over his own writing experience, underlines the novel’s importance: forever a reminder.