Yellow Birds (Review)

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The Yellow Birds
Kevin Powers, 2012
226 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
December, 2012
"The war tried to kill us," reports the narrator in the opening lines of this powerful book on the Iraq war. For 21-year-old John Bartle, the events of that war prove so searing he cannot escape the memories.

Bartle is trapped, like coal mine canaries who, when set free, fly right back to their cages. Cages are all the birds know—they're held back by the memory of their only existence. So it is with Bartle.

Bartle has made a promise to bring his younger buddy, Murph, safely home from Iraq. Inseparable, the two dodge rifle-fire, mortars, and human body-bombs. They kick dogs and bloated bodies and shoot civilians. "We were unaware of even our own savagery...and the sheer brutality of our presence." Dust, heat, and the stench of decay are inescapable—as is the fear of death.

All of it begins to work on Murph. Bartle, who can only watch as Murph sinks more deeply into himself, fears his friend has lost the will to fight, maybe even to live. He wishes he could trace the change in Murph "back to one moment...to one thing [he, Bartle] would not be guilty of." We learn early on that Murph will not make it home; the story hinges on what happens—and the extent to which Bartle feels responsible. Is it possible, in fact, to assume responsibilty for another in the midst of war's chaos?

As civilians we can never experience and, thus, never understand, war—the sheer God-awfulness of it. It's left to the power of fiction to provide some notion of what it might feel like—which is what The Yellow Bird does beautifully. The novel provides a telescopic view for us to witness something of what we ask our young men and women to do in our name.

It is a visceral, gripping read...at times. Yes, at times, which is why I have some reservations. Much of the writing is inward, abstruse and at times impenetrable. Passages on Bartle's state-of-mind hang on verbal gymnanstics, like this one:

It's imagination or it's nothing and must be because what is created in this world, or made, can be undone, unmade; the threads of a rope can be unwoven.... I accept now, though in truth it took some time, that must must be its own permission.

A passage like that (and there are more) cries out for re-read after re-read and, as a result, drags down the pace.

Overall, though, The Yellow Birds is a stunning war novel. Its author, Kevin Powers, who spent two years as a machine gunner in Iraq, makes palpable the reality of war and brings it home to readers in armchairs. It's what makes this novel an important contribution to the genre—and well worth the read.

See our Reading Guide for The Yellow Birds.

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