The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

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The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A short, powerful novel summing up the frustrations and horror of war without sensationalism. In years to come The Yellow Birds will mean 'Iraq' just as the movie Apocalypse Now has come to mean 'Vietnam'.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-1444756128

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Winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2012

Daniel Murphy ('Murph') is 18, in the American army and about to embark on his first tour of duty in Iraq. By his side is John Bartle, three years older and more experienced in the army. However neither of them has any notion of the sort of life or job they will face when they get there. The fighting is dirty, unpredictable and not set out in any text book. Their commanding officer, Sergeant Sterling, is sadistic and without any apparent humanity. But everything will be alright: Bartle has made a promise to Murph's mother, a promise that will ricochet from the US to Iraq and back again.

The scariest, most worrying thing about award nominated The Yellow Birds is that the author, Kevin Powers is an ex-US army machine gunner who's actually served in Iraq. It may be a fictionalised account, but it's from a first-hand witness. It's not concerned with the periphery of war such as equipment, dates or strategy. This is a novel taking us behind the eyes of a soldier before, during and after combat. Like Murph and Bartle, Powers felt the exhaustion and battle confusion. He may also have taken stimulants in order to stay alert whilst on guard. He would definitely have felt the paranoia fuelled by the thought that any roadside body could be booby-trapped with explosives, any cute child or woman rushing from the shops could be a walking bomb. He may even have counted the returning body bags hoping that, if he died, he wouldn't be a landmark 1,000th KIA.

Bartle narrates his own story and, as you'd expect from a mind that's been ravaged by such sights and feelings, the story jumps about. This doesn't make it unintelligible or confusing as Kevin Powers ensures we know where we are. In fact he cleverly uses Bartle's displacement as a suspense-heightener. We know what happens almost from the start but not how or why. The chronological twisting is also helped by the author's masterly use of language and the chameleonesque way in which he changes writing styles. Forget any prejudices you may have about soldiers who write books; The Yellow Birds is written by a consummate wordsmith.

Initially we're gently lulled with poetic prose: While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer… While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. But this is no wispy, soft song. After the first few pages the poetry is replaced by hard, functional prose dripping with the ugliness of conflict; having said that, the novel is still seasoned with the occasional turn of phrase that will stop you in your tracks as much as the story does. For instance I defy anyone to be unaffected by the metaphor which compares missing the dead with a grave.

There are swear words used in context as you would expect. In the same way there are also graphic scenes of death, violence and dismemberment. However nothing is sensationalised, just laid before us as a picture that others have seen and felt. This isn't a blood-and-glory memoir, but insight into what happens to men who go into war zones at the bidding of politicians. Some combatants are fortunate enough to come home afterwards but not all survivors can retrieve their minds from the hell their bodies have escaped.

The Yellow Birds will be a high school and university set text for decades to come, but hopefully it won't only be the young who learn from it.

I would like to thank Sceptre for providing Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.

If you'd like to read more about the Iraqi War from an Iraqi's viewpoint, we heartily recommend Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit or if you'd prefer the viewpoint of journalists reporting on Iraq and other conflicts from the front line, then Frontline by David Loyn is excellent.

Buy The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers at Amazon.com.


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