Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Yellow Birds

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

The Yellow Birds is an unforgettable novel that takes you to war’s very heart of darkness.

Kevin Powers has written poetry and fiction since the age of 13. Feeling that his career prospects were rather dim, he decided to join the US army. In 2004 and 2005 he served in Iraq as a machine gunner. The Yellow Birds is his first novel.

This is a war novel, which may put some people off, sensing a hyper masculine tale of men put through the emotional and physical wringer. The Yellow Birds is the very opposite of all this and is the sort of book I'd recommend widely.

Powers writes in an extraordinarily perceptive and sensitive voice. His prose is delicate and finely drawn, allowing him to catch hallucinatory impressions and complicated inner states in a language that is crisp and clear. Not a word is wasted. This is a deeply personal and traumatic story about a young man – just out of boyhood, really – who comes back from war profoundly changed. First-hand experience and fiction are blended to create a story that convincingly takes you to war’s very heart of darkness. Having read it I felt like I had an understanding of how personally destroyed solders returning from Iraq must be.

The novel is structured in such a way that the reader is taken back and forth in time and over various locations during five years in the life of Private John Bartle. We learn early on that Bartle’s friend, Daniel 'Murph' Murphy, a young 18-year-old soldier, has become a casualty of war. The novel takes the reader through a series of events and major shifts in time to describe Bartle’s psychological degeneration after his Iraq service, all culminating with the dramatic and shocking events surrounding Murph's last hours.

It’s impossible to overstate this novel’s power. The blurb on the front by Hilary Mantel declares it a masterpiece, and it’s hard to disagree. It’s the sort of novel you imagine being set as mandatory reading for school students. In a strange way, it reminded me of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, another novel by a poet that is the anatomy of a mental breakdown . The Yellow Birds shows life horribly stripped of all possible meaning during the fog of war, and what happens to the human psyche when deprived of any possible way of making sense of cruelty and violence.

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. Published by Sceptre. ISBN: 9781444756142 RRP: $19.99