The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

At 17, Kevin Powers joined the army and found himself in Iraq serving as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar. On his return to America, he was constantly asked What was it like? Powers’ extraordinary debut novel, The Yellow Bird, is one man’s answer to what even he does not fully understand.

As Powers explains in the preface: “What I’ve written is not meant to report or document, nor is it meant to argue or advocate. Instead I’ve tried with what little skill I have to create the cartography of one man’s consciousness, to let it stand, however briefly, as my reminder.”

The Yellow Birds centres on the lives of three soldiers as their platoon prepares for an assault on a nearby Iraqi community.

There is Bartle who joined the army in his teens and at 21 is a combat veteran. He is torn between putting on the uniform of callous bravado just to survive and being mentally eaten away by the agonising awfulness of his existence.

His best friend is the relative newcomer, timid, introspective Murph, who wants only to be home with his girlfriend and his mother. Despite Bartle’s encouragement Murph retreats further and further into himself until even that cannot save him.

And there is Sergeant Sterling, hero and madman, who Bartle hates for his swaggering brutality and for the fact that brutality keeps him and Murph alive.

The chapters alternate between the everyday of their lives in Iraq and the inability to ever find that everyday again back home. And only when he finally returns to his “little shithole town outside Virginia” does Bartle realise it is there that his life is the most difficult, haunted by the consequences of an unthinking promise that was always going to be impossible to keep.

“Back home, everything had begun to remind me of something else. 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 lyricism of the prose exposes the poet that Powers has become, perhaps always was. Through Bartle he reveals the layers of beauty that exist between the seemingly relentless carnage.

Despite the harrowing content I raced through The Yellow Birds. Then immediately re-read it. It is a stunning book that flickers in your mind long after you have moved on. I don’t think I really understand what it was like over there. But I understand, at least a little, what it was like for Bartle.

Powers extraordinary book is destined to take its place as a seminal work about the complex and tragic aftermath of war.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers has just been published by Sceptre. It has been longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award 2012.

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