This is a superb, moving and insightful book about war and its effects on the men and women who take part in it. The author, Kevin Powers, is a veteran of Iraq in 2004 where this book is set and is now a poet. This combination of first-hand experience and ability with language coupled with great insight and honesty creates something quite remarkable.
The book is narrated in the first person by private John Bartle on his first tour of duty in Iraq. The language is heightened throughout, often poetic and sometimes almost hallucinatory. The timescale moves between his time in Iraq, his pre-tour training and his homecoming and after. The story is really that of Bartle's psychological journey and is quite stunning in its evocation of the war itself and of the state of mind of the young man who went through it. It is deceptively quiet in tone with even the violent action (of which there is relatively little) described without hysteria, and this lends it a remarkable power to convey things like fear, exhaustion, the rush of excitement and the dreadful problems of reintegrating once home.
All this may sound forbidding, turgid or preachy but it isn't at all. This is an engrossing, readable book which is quite short but has immense impact and which will stay with me for a very long time. I think this genuinely belongs among great war books such as All Quiet On the Western Front and Dispatches. I could give a long list of examples of how thoughtful, insightful and honest it is, but I will just say that I recommend that you read it. It is truly exceptional and you will never forget it.
This really is something special. Told as a first person narrative by Bartle, 21 years old and on his first tour of duty in Iraq, 2004, this documents his friendship with 18 year old fellow American soldier Murphy - and his desperate attempts to hold on to some remnants of humanity and compassion in the midst of war.
This is a beautifully-written novel which recounts the brutality of war in lyrical, almost poetic style. From the opening, War itself is personified as something with an agency and life of its own. I really liked that this is, in lots of ways, a quiet novel - it's not full of daring action, or obvious set pieces - though the central `event' which the narrative seems to almost want to shy away from, is appropriately violent and heart-rending.
While this is set in Iraq, it's a novel about war in more general and conceptual terms, and eschews localised politics for a depiction of the way in which combat ravages the spirit, striving to strip men of what makes them human. The only victory in this book is that Bartle resists giving in to violence, cruelty and inhumanity, and maintains a sense of care and very human sympathy.
The descriptions of Iraq as Ninevah give this a mythic air at times, and help to ground the book away from the specific. This isn't always an easy read in that it's painful and heartfelt - but it is an outstanding one.
Harrowing and beautiful, this is the sort of novel which deserves to win literary prizes - highly recommended.
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...
on 16 September 2012
Apparently Kevin Powers wrote this as a way of answering the question he was so often asked about his time serving in Iraq, "So what was it like?" I've never served in the armed forces, or experienced warfare of any kind, but I think that Powers' book comes as close as anyone can to describing what a truly traumatic and life-shattering experience it is, and how little help those who have served in such wars receive. A truly beautiful and profoundly disturbing read.
This is the story of one man's fight to survive war and survive the homecoming.
Like Remarque and Graves, Powell is a veteran. One wonders how much of Yellow Birds is imagination and how much is close to his real experience. In alternating chapters he tells the parallel narrative of Private Bartle's time in Iraq and his return, living with the casual promise he made to a mother to bring her son home safe.
There's action in the war narrative, but most of the battle happens in his head. Bartle isn't a hero of either kind. He doesn't take on machine guns single-handed, nor does he stand up against the brutality or war or question it. His is an inward journey: how to remain human in the comradeship of men who kill and how to remain human in the lonely company of those who think he's a hero simply for fighting under their flag.
Bartle's struggle is harrowing and real. There is little graphic violence because the war itself is only a physical threat and Powers is concerned with the far more deadly war of the mind. As such, Yellow Birds is unspectacular but all the more real and impressive for that.
Film has been the medium for portraying the agony of modern war since Apocalypse Now. America's experience in Iraq hasn't had its Goodbye to All That or All Quiet on the Western Front. It has it now.
on 7 January 2014
Once you get past the opening 20 pages of self-conscious and often rambling poetic writing and flash-forward guilty musings, this is a book which gets better and better.
Powers writes with brutal honesty about the feckless and yet innocent American GIs ploughing through the exotic landscape and war-zone of Iraq. The relatively few action scenes are shocking in their low-key and acutely observed sense of exhausted reality. The perfunctory way in which the soldiers shoot anyone who looks like a possible aggressor is strikingly portrayed. Hints of human feeling are delicately sketched, but these cannot be allowed to flower or it will be impossible to keep going. This is the problem for Murph, the best buddy of the main character, Bartle. Murph cannot take it and gradually loses his instincts for survival. However, I found that most of the scenes which focused on Murph were weak: he comes across as a too-obvious foil to his mentally armoured and distant colleagues. In contrast, the tough and fairly horrible but necessary Sergeant Sterling is extremely convincing.
The returned-home scenes are marvellously gentle and yet clinical, especially when Bartle takes refuge in his mother's home and suffers a shame-induced break-down. Sudden irruptions of feeling in the war-drugged youth drag his humanity to the surface, and there is a magnificent self-hate diatribe.
The searing intensity of the first person narrative is very effective. The pity of war is well done, though it is at the cost of a deeper story with a broader range of emotions and perspectives.
I bought this in the audiobook version and it is a remarkable, spare, brutal, hypnotising account of three soldiers' lives in Iraq. The story is told by Bartle, who is haunted by his promise to his friend Murph's mother that he would look after him. This promise is roundly mocked by Sterling, their sergeant, a bit of a hot head who lives hard, and treats others with little compassion.
The writer, Kevin Powers, who I believe was a serving soldier, captures remarkably well the sights, sounds, tastes and textures of desert warfare. It really does come very close to transporting the reader to the theatre of war. It also gives you a glimpse into the psyches of the men who have to fight on the front line. I've read a lot of World War I books, including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and I have read poetry written by today's soldiers, and I truly think this book is worthy to sit alongside Sassoon and Owen as a truthful, harrowing account of the experience of war.
The audio book is narrated by a young American called Holter Graham and his casual, laconic reading style is a perfect foil to the horrors he describes. Although the book is quite short and spare, there is much poetic description which is unbearably moving in its visceral truth. One is also given a clear glimpse into the psychological struggles of the soldiers both whilst in Iraq and, later, at home, as they strive to readjust to civilian life.
This book is a really intense read and it isn't one you can listen to easily, but it should be read. I think this book will be around for a long, long time, and it will become a classic. A compact jewel of a book, it is my book of the year.
on 14 September 2013
I was given to expect something extraordinary with this book, but I found it pretty mediocre. There is much better war literature out there. There is some nice writing in places but the story doesn't really go anywhere, and I understand that that could be kind of the point, as in reflecting the pointlessness of war and so on, but in the end you feel a bit sort of let down after reading it, like "why did I bother!". The quality of his writing suggests he could do better, and perhaps an author to keep an eye on, but I'd pass over this one - doesn't live up to the hype.
on 15 December 2015
This is the story of a young American soldier, John Bartle. The author served in Iraq and based the novel on his experience.
The main protagonists are Bartle, as narrator, his young buddy, Daniel Murphy, and the sergeant, Sterling. Their company is assigned to a place called Tal Afar in early fall 2004. The events there follow Bartle back home in 2005. The book moves back and forth between the combat itself and its profound psychological effects on the soldiers.
No truthful narrative on war can avoid its brutality. Readers here will find disturbing descriptions of extraordinary power. Bartle’s subsequent disconnect from back home is believably addressed – the “spoiled cities of America” and their uncomprehending citizenry.
The enemy is hardly described at all – casual references to “hajjis” apart. The real enemy for Bartle and Murphy is “war”. The first words are “the war tried to kill us”. Bartle tries to make sense of it but never succeeds. It is enough that eventually he can forget and “become ordinary again”.
No question Yellow Birds packs a punch but I have some reservations – and in all honesty expressed before me and better on this site.
The language is at times poetic to the point of obscurity. Early on I was going to give up on it.
Then there is the question of politics. I think it fair to say that it has appealed to those who think this war was a misconceived disaster. Bartle’s failure to make sense of his duty conforms to those conceptions – in a way that, for example, American Sniper, never did. Lavish praise has been bestowed and prizes given by those who have no experience of war – and acting doesn't really count.
That is why I was especially interested in the views of those who served in Iraq and in other wars. How authentic is Yellow Birds?
It seems that it tells some truths but not the whole truth. I can only refer to the other reviews on here and recommend them – they really were “helpful”.
Yes I rate this book highly with reservations as noted.
Kevin Powers is a Iraq war veteran and poet, so he knows of what he speaks here and the poetry background gives him the skills to write about the war is a way that is visceral, real and utterly compelling.
It is a simple novel in terms of plot. John Bartle is back in the USA following his first tour of Iraq. He is struggling to adapt to life in civvy street and is haunted by events during his time in the war zone.
It has a small cast of characters, Bartle, Murph (who's death is at the centre of the events which torture Bartle) and Sterling, and all three of the principals are all expertly drawn. Sterling particularly is chilling - a man who is at his best when in combat, reckless, violent while sensitive and utterly believable.
The poetry of the writing stays with you. At times clipped and precise, at others hallucinatory and challenging, it is hard to believe this is a debut novel:
'We were not destined to survive. The fact is we were not destined at all. The war would take whatever it could get. It was patient. It didn't care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on.'
I have a couple of tiny quibbles about the plotting and structure, but they are just that - tiny. This is an accomplished, affecting and emotionally true novel, that should be required reading in schools.