The Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers

 
The Yellow Birds
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The Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers

“The war tried to kill us in the spring,” begins this breathtaking 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. 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.

Bound together since basic training when their tough-as-nails Sergeant ordered Bartle to watch over Murphy, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes impossible actions.

WINNER OF THE GUARDIAN FIRST BOOK AWARD 2012, NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST, AN AMAZON EDITOR’S PICK: BEST BOOKS OF 2012, A NEW YORK TIMES TOP TEN BOOK OF THE YEAR, A TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR, AN INDEPENDENT BOOK OF THE YEAR, A TLS BOOK OF THE YEAR, AN EVENING STANDARD BOOK OF THE YEAR, A SUNDAY EXPRESS BOOK OF THE YEAR, A GUARDIAN BOOK OF THE YEAR, A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR, A SUNDAY HERALD BOOK OF THE YEAR, AN IRISH TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR

Review

Kevin Powers is a young veteran of the Iraq war. His debut novel, The Yellow Birds, is the story of two soldiers who make a pact not to let the conflict kill them, and it has been described as a fictional account of Powers’s time in service.

Over the past few months this slim novel has been swamped with publicity with some reviews calling it ‘already a modern classic’ and Miles Franklin shortlisted author Favel Parrett naming it a ‘special book’.

The writing is lyrical and there is a decidedly dream-like feel to the story as the protagonist, John, drifts in and out of different times and lucidity. There are some powerful moments where he slips into a raw, confessional tone, as though writing for a diary. In particular, I found John’s relationship with his mother, as she struggles to reconcile his decision to go to war with the consequences, very compelling.

Powers has a tendency to over-describe that can be problematic; sometimes you need a cleaner sentence tucked in there to highlight the more evocative moments. This could be due to his background as a poet and his emphasis on portraying the psychological and emotional impact of war over telling a good story. At times his descriptions become forced, rather than beautiful, and this makes the plot feel a little contrived.

Despite these problems The Yellow Birds is still an emotive novel, a war story told for a literary-minded audience, and I don’t doubt some people will love it.


Bronte Coates is the Online & Readings Monthly Assistant. She is a co-founder of literary project, Stilts

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