From Sunday’s Books page:
Joanna Lobo reviewed Mridula Koshy’s Not Only The Things That Have Happened, which is in running with The Illicit Happiness of Other People as the most Twitter-unfriendly book title. Jo loved the book. You can read an excerpt of Koshy’s debut novel here.
Mark Bowden’s The Finish was better than No Easy Day but not properly satisfying, as far as Saikat Datta was concerned.
The Yellow Birds
There’s a bone-deep exhaustion in John Bartle as he tries to function like a regular civilian in Richmond, Virginia, rather than an Iraq veteran. He shuffles around, surviving on depression, beer and more beer. Trying to describe his state of mind, Bartle rambles: “…you have bottomed out in your spirit but yet a deeper hole is being dug because everybody is so fucking happy to see you, the murderer… everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down … but then you signed up to go so it’s all your fault, really, because you went on purpose … so why not just find a spot and curl up and die and let’s make it as painless as possible because you are a coward…”. Bartle’s weariness, despair and disillusionment make him seem old. In actuality, he’s not even 25. A year in Iraq, however, has aged him beyond recognition.
The Yellow Birds is Kevin Powers’s first novel and he has a few things in common with John Bartle. Both are from Richmond; both served in the US Army for a year and were stationed in Iraq; both were machine gunners. Unlike Bartle, whose life careens off-track, Powers returned and wrote a novel that takes you deep into the battle-scarred mind of a veteran.
Eating into Bartle’s peace of mind is the memory of his friend, Murph, who died in Iraq. Murph was declared missing in action but soon, it becomes clear that this isn’t the complete story and that Bartle has a guilty conscience for the part he played in Murph’s death. As tragic as Murph’s death and its impact on Bartle’s life may be, the truly poignant parts of The Yellow Birds are Bartle’s recollections of the war itself. The mystery of Murph’s death only provide the novel a certain direction. It’s his descriptions of everything from the landscape to the journalists reporting on the war that make The Yellow Birds both harrowing and unforgettable. Bartle’s recollections of the year in Iraq and returning to America ricochet across different time periods. The movement of the novel is best described by Bartle himself: “Every thought I had blossomed outward and backward until it attached itself to some other memory, that one leading to another, impermanent, until I was lost to whatever present moment I was in.”
The one touchstone in Bartle’s life is his grief at the loss of Murph, who comes to embody all the innocence that is crushed in war.
Powers’s descriptions of Iraq are tremendous. The sensory experience of being a soldier – the hollowing out of hope and humanity, the fear, the frenzy and the desperation to stay alive – is described in simple, precise and yet eloquent language. He manages that rare balance between empathising with the soldier without glorifying, romanticising or endorsing the brutality. There are neither heroes nor villains in The Yellow Birds. There’s only grief in all its oppressive, spirit-crushing beauty.
At one point, Powers writes of a character in The Yellow Birds, “He wanted to have one memory he’d made of his own volition to balance out the shattered remnants of everything he hadn’t asked for.” Perhaps this novel is Powers’s attempt to do the same in real life. If it is, he’s succeeded.
On the cover of Mixtape #1 is a hand holding a red heart. It reminded me of the saying “be still my beating heart”, which is usually used sarcastically. The singer Sting used the phrase very earnestly in a song in 1985, which probably helped make it popular. There’s a section in Sting’s song “Be Still My Beating Heart” that goes like this:
“I’ve been to every single book I know
To soothe the thoughts that plague me so
Stop before you start
Be still my beating heart.”
While “every single book” may be overstating the case, those familiar with the song may find themselves humming it while reading Mixtape #1.
Reading seems to be an odd word to describe the experience of going through a graphic novel, particularly when it rests as much on imagery as the stories in Mixtape #1 do. However, publisher Manta Ray has a skill for picking storytellers who can fill silences with drama. They hinted at this talent with Hush, a powerful graphic novel about child sexual abuse, and they’ve proved it with Mixtape #1, in which the most moving of the stories are told without a single word.
Mixtape #1 is a compilation of four graphic shorts (the kid brother of the graphic novel). They’re beautifully illustrated, particularly “Rather Lovely Thing” and “The Silver Spider”. “The Silver Spider” (story by Praveen K Nair and art by Devaki Neogi) is strikingly cinematic in the way it shows different perspectives and initially seems to be an Indian Spiderman. A boy goes out for a walk in a grassy area and a spider bites his foot. But the boy doesn’t end up filling out a latex bodysuit. It’s darker, more silvery and contains many, many more spiders than most readers would expect. In the heart-rending “Rather Lovely Thing” (story by Pratheek Thomas and art by Archana Sreenivasan), about a woman buries a part of herself at the root of a tree, is the only one that uses a dash of colour. The almost-cartoonish drawing styles of these two stories contrast sharply with the themes of the stories. This incongruity serves to highlight the ominous quality of “The Silvery Spider” and the quiet sadness of “Rather Lovely Thing.”
The other two stories have artwork that is far more realistic and they move almost like a film’s storyboard. “Voyeur” (story by Pratheek Thomas and art by Sachin Somasundaran) is about a man who watches his neighbours make love and it hovers between black humour and flat-out creepiness. Fittingly, the artwork uses a wide palette of greys. “My Beloved” (story by Tina Thomas and art by Jasjyot Singh Hans) is a love triangle between two women and a man. By the time you reach the end, it’s difficult to tell who is the real victim among the three.
Compared to the eeriness and subtlety of the first three stories, “My Beloved” is perhaps the simplest and also the least satisfying. It’s a neat little vignette and is the most grounded in reality, both in terms of story as well as its artwork. It’s also the wordiest of the four. However, there’s little tantalising about it. While the other three stories leave you wondering what happened next, there’s no intrigue at the end of “My Beloved.”
Spend Rs55 and buy yourself a copy of Mixtape #1. It comes with a bonus: once you’re done “reading” it, at least “The Silver Spider”, “Rather Lovely Thing” and the cover can double up as art for your walls.
You can buy Mixtape #1 here.