44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
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.
61 of 64 people found the following review helpful
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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.
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
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...
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 27 December 2013
This is a book about growing up. It features the following hallmarks of adolescence: 1. The point of view is entirely subjective to the point of solipsism. 2. Every sentence and event appears to be forced with loaded 'significance' that rings false. 3. The occasional stabs at mundane and inexperienced insight. These things might be excused as aspects of character except that they belong to the narrative. The characters are featureless.
The various paean's to a lost friend 'Murph' felt cliched and there was no real motive given to the reader as to why Murph's loss should have as much relevance as it does to the narrator. The use of fractured narrative to demonstrate a fractured state of mind also felt tired and worn.
There is little or no insight here into the war in the Middle East, soldiering, technique etc...
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The poetic title of the book is explained in two different places, once at the start, as a US Army marching song - which rather mirrors how stylistically Powers will deploy his writing style, and the other, far into the book, in an account which has some strong metaphorical subtext.
And I'm explaining neither, as the reader needs to make their own discoveries.
Kevin Powers was a GI, from Richmond Virginia who enlisted in the army, aged 17, and served as a machine gunner in Iraq.
This is not autobiography, but it is the story of 3 young soldiers, aged 18, 21 and 24, and their experience in combat in Iraq. Its, if you like, a distillation of what war does to young men and women. In the end, to prove yourself a man in these situations, you must become less than humane. Aggression may be barely buried in us, but the act of killing another violates many taboos.
The particular conflict is not the subject of the book, rather it is the darkness of conflict itself.
Powers juggles timescales, a particular chapter and time of the 3 central characters, the unfolding story of 'what happened' to them, which we know is a cataclysm, intercut with various before and after sections.
The story is seen through the lens of one of the three, who is clearly a distillation of Powers, a young man with a tough, poetic view, and a relationship of some mysticism with the physicality of the natural world.
I found the juxtaposition of intense lyricism and visceral horror worked well - it rather reinforced the sense that, faced at any point with a pointless death, the senses must sharpen to stay alert to try and survive. Being as intensely aware of the moment as possible, fully present is of course what disciplines like meditation are about. Its about being absolutely with the present. So it doesn't seem in any way a contradiction that at one and the same moment the intensity of being aware of trees in a citrus orchard, and their beauty, and the horror of spilled viscera, should not collide.
This is absolutely not a novel about the beauty or nobility of war - it is a novel about the beauty and nobility of life. Which war destroys.
Do we need more anti-war books? Yes, until wars stop.
I lost a final star on this excellent book because I felt some paring back, some cutting of the beautiful, lyrical writing would have made the power of its punch more intense.
An example of Powers' intense writing :
"We traveled with the sun, uncoupled from the dictates of light and dark for a little while. I watched the broad ocean spread out beneath me after the clouds thinned. I focused for what seemed like hours on crests becoming troughs, troughs tilting to become whitecaps, all of it seeming like the breaking of some ancient treaty between all those things that stand in opposition to one another"
I very much appreciated the way in which meditations on the landscape serve to reveal that ever present sense of foreboding, of the central conflict between living and arbitrary dying
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
We have been fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan for so long now that it's sometimes easy to become immune to the devastating effects that combat can have on those men and women directly involved in it. Newspaper headlines fail to grip as they should after such a long drawn out and hotly disputed conflict. And so it falls to other mediums to convey the vital messages that we must never forget. Kathryn Bigelow's astonishingly brilliant and fittingly garlanded film The Hurt Locker was one such vehicle. And another one, this time in the form of a novel, which is every bit as raw and powerful and urgent, comes in the form of Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds.
I have no doubt that Powers would not have been able to tell the story of John Bartle's devastating experiences in Iraq with such power and impact if the author had not himself fought in that place. As it is, his two year tour of duty in Mosul and Tal Afar as a machine gunner with the US army, tells on every page. Bartle befriends another young soldier, and rashly promises his mother to keep him safe, in a place which is anything but. Their relationship in battle is played out under the ever watchful, and sometimes brutal, hardened eye of their sergeant Sterling.
Power is a tremendously effective writer, with no word out of place, no paragraph put in as filler, in this novel that speeds along in flashback to the war zone, and afterwards to Bartle's traumatic return home as a survivor. He is an extremely reluctant war hero however. On his return home to the airport he turns down the bartender's offer of free drinks 'I didn't want to smile and say thanks. Didn't want to pretend I'd done anything except survive.'
The brutalising effects of being involved in a war, both on the inhabitants whose homeland is occupied, and on the forces doing the occupying in a hostile land, are depicted in a crystal clear way through the experiences of this one soldier. The after care, or rather shocking lack of it, for returning fighters is also laid bare. The description of Bartle's inability to cope with a world he no longer understands, or can function in, but which he has to call home, is astounding.
This is truly the best novel I have read this year. It is accomplished, excellently written, and vitally important. Whatever your view of the war, I urge you to read it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The Yellow Birds is an extraordinary book. It is beautifully written and is the sort of volume which wins literary prizes and which will be studied by future generations. This does not make it either an enjoyable or an easy read. It is however, both compelling and very worthwhile.
More than anything it is a classic essay on the futility of war and the psychological effect it has on young men plucked from their homes and sent far away to follow orders. Set in Iraq, the narrator, Bartle, initially sees a pattern to the violence. Who is going to be the thousandth death amongst the soldiers? Should they count Iraqi interpreters in the score? Is your fate predestined - the classic bullet with your number on it theory. However, as he sees his comrades die he is overwhelmed by the sheer randomness of it all. If they had advanced three miles an hour faster they would have hit an IED, stood a few inches across and bought a bullet.
Bartle and his friend, Murphy, are very young men - 18 and 20 years old - who have not anticipated the Groundhog Day scenario in which they find themselves. A town is captured at great expense, repopulated by the enemy and then taken again on an annual basis with many further casualties. Meanwhile life goes on with touches of normality. A woman tending her hyacinths. Shopkeepers going about their business. People going on with their everyday lives. All this is interspersed with the extreme violence mixed in with the normality which makes for a strange incongruity.
The author has clearly written this from his personal experiences and thoughts having served in Iraq and having joined the army as a 17 year old gunner. In writing this he was trying to answer the often asked question `what was it like over there'. There is no answer to this unless you have been there and the switching of scene and time lines throughout the book emphasises this. There was huge confusion in what was happening and what the participants were thinking, but again little pattern.
When you finish this book you are left with a feeling of sadness and an overwhelming impression of the pointlessness of war. This is certainly a book which will stay with you long after you have turned the last page and I would highly recommend it.