Up to Speed: Book review

I’ve been a bit slack (ok, very slack) about updating, but better late than never. So here we go.

Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds is a novel set in Iraq and written by an American veteran. It seems to have a touch of autobiography to it. Powers studied creative writing after leaving the US Army (honorably discharged), and The Yellow Birds is his debut novel. It’s also a very, very well-written book. Here’s the unedited version of my review, which was printed in DNA Sunday, on January 20th.

The Yellow Birds

Loved this cover.
Loved this cover.

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. Something about Murph’s death haunts Bartle and soon it becomes evident to the reader that Bartle holds himself responsible for what happened to Murph.

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.

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