The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers


From Amazon:A novel written by a veteran of the war in Iraq, The Yellow Birds is the harrowing story of two young soldiers trying to stay alive.
“The war tried to kill us in the spring.” So begins this powerful account of friendship and loss. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. Bound together since basic training when Bartle makes a promise to bring Murphy safely home, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for.
      In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes actions he could never have imagined.
     With profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a hidden war on mothers and families at home, The Yellow Birds is a groundbreaking novel that is destined to become a classic.

Powers is a an MFA from the Universit of Texas at Austin. He was a Michener Fellow in Poetry. That should be a tip off right there about the style of this novel. Yellow Birds is, mostly, a very long poem. It’s not what I expected for a war story written by a soldier. Talk about juxtaposition.

I’ll be honest. At times I wanted to give up on it. I’m more a fan of prose. Reading this was a challenge, and not just because of the subject matter. Here’s an example (The first paragraph of Chapter 5) to illustrate what I mean:

Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed.[Okay, cool imagery, I’m still with you] I knew, watching them, that if in any given moment a measurement could be made it would show how tenative was my mind’s mastery over my heart. [Uhhh, okay?] Such small arrangements make a life, and though it’shard to get close to saying what the heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of those parentheses which were the beginning and the end of my war: the old life disappearing into the dust that hung and hovered over Ninevaeh even before it could be recalled and longed for, young and unformed as it was already broken by the time I reached the furthest working of my memory. I was going home. But home, too was hard to get an image of, harder still to think beyond the last curved enclosure of the desert, where it seemed I had left the better portion of myself as one among innuemmerable grains of sand, how in the end the weatherbeaten stone is not one stone but only that which has been weathered, [Please, dude, take a breath. I need you to put in a period so I can have a moment to figure out what the heck you’re talking about] a result, an example of slow erosion on a thing by wind or waves that break against it, so that the else of anyone involved ends up deposited like silt spilling our into an estuary [the “else” of anyone involved? What is an else?] or at the bottom of a river in a city that is all you can remember. [What are we remembering? I forgot.]

Mashki Gate in Nineveh Province, home to Al  Tafar

Mashki Gate in Nineveh Province, home to Al Tafar

I’ve read that paragraph so many times. It makes a little more sense each time I read it, but that’s a good example to show how nothing about this book is easy, like I said, including the subject matter.

The discription on the jacket cover (and on Amazon) was a little misleading. I think it makes it sounds like there’s going to be a lot more “stuff” going on than there was. Really, this book is a very cerebral and internal musing of the main character, Bartle. It’s his stream of concious, his mental reflections on what happened in Al Tafar. At times it reads like, and makes as much sense as, someone trying to tell you about a dream they had.

I would have given up on it earlier, I think, if I hadn’t recently read Me Before You, by Jo Jo Moyes (which I LOVED, by the way).
me before you

In it, the main characters are a parapalegic man, Will,  who lived a vivacious life before his injury, and Louisa, his care taker, who until she met Will, had lived a somewhat stayed and complacent life. Long story short, Will gets Louisa to come out of her shell and challenges her to try things she normally wouldn’t try. He gets her to read things she normally wouldn’t read, even if she doesn’t think she will like it, because she’ll find that it will suprise her with the effect it will have on her.

Because of what Will, a fictional character, told Louisa, another fictional character, I felt compelled to stick to The Yellow Birds to the end. Just try telling me that reading can’t expand a persons mind and view points. Tell me reading can’t change people, make them grow, educate and elucidate them.

I think the effect that The Yellow Birds will have on me is something yet to be seen. It’s not immediate, but  I imagine its going to roll around in my brain for a while like a pebble in my shoe. It’ll keep rubbing on me in ways that are both good and bad, and whether I liked Yellow Birds or not, that’s the sign of a good book and a good writer.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Returned by Jason Mott | Songs in Squee Minor

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