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Let's break rank
on 27 September 2012
The Yellow Birds is a novel that sets out to show the hardships of war and the conflict between personal and national concerns. It is hard to criticise novels like this without seeming to support the suffering.
OK, let's break rank.
The Yellow Birds, worthy though the subject matter might be, is confusing and opaque. Kevin Powers is a poet and it shows. Much of the narrative feels overwritten; floweriness for its own sake. It appeared inauthentic to put these words into a soldier's first person narrative. I know that Kevin Powers is a war veteran himself so the voice is technically authentic, but the trouble is, it just doesn't convince. It doesn't feel like a narrative from the heart.
So what is the story? That's a good question. We have a soldier, John Bartle, who enlists for various personal reasons, chief of which is to prove to himself and others that he is not a coward. So far so good. And in the army, he fights alongside various colleagues including Murph and Sergeant Sterling. Alas, the short novel doesn't really allow much space for characterisation; they are really just ciphers. The details of the war are well done and convincing but it soon becomes clear that there are multiple stories, not all of which can be true. Some of these stories are just in John Bartle's mind or in his dreams. This is at best confusing and at worst frustrating. I guess there is some kind of deep metaphor at work, but as so often with poetic novels, one soon tires of trying to work it all out. The law of diminishing returns and all that.
And there is plenty of navel gazing too, particularly in the sections set in 2006 away from the Iraqi battlefields. The cod-philosophy drags the pace down and seems to serve really just as padding for what would otherwise be a thin story.
Overall, The Yellow Birds does have its moments and it does provoke thoughts. However, it is far from perfect and the hazy, dreamy plotting is not as profound as it tries to be. Some of the metaphors feel simultaneously heavy handed and misjudged. Yellow birds, for example, that will sit on top of the cage when released and then happily pop back into the cage for food and shelter - explained in detail but of little obvious relevance to the novel.
Claims that The Yellow Birds will be studied for many years to come seem somewhat hubristic, but I guess time will tell...