TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 September 2012
This is an outstanding book. A first person narrative, it tells of the relationship between Bartle (the teller) and Murphy, US soldiers in the Iraq War. Both are very young, both join up not so much out of a sense of purpose but through dissatisfaction of some kind - it is not really articulated ; indeed they probably cannot articulate it - with their lives at that moment. The book is written in dated sections - September 2004, Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq, December 2003, Fort Dix, New Jersey, March 2005, Richmond, Virginia, and so on - which move backwards and forwards over the accounts of operations in which the two men are involved. These accounts are extremely raw and vivid, but they are viewed in the context of before and after - joining up, coming home, trying to resettle at home. Essentially, the book explores the experience of that kind of war and what I suppose is post-traumatic stress, its almost inevitable consequence. Bartle feels enormous, almost unlivable-with guilt, for two reasons : because he has been a solder and has killed, again and again, and because of what happens to Murphy. This second reason is what drives the narrative. We are made aware very early on that there is an issue about Murphy's death, but we do not find out what it is until near the end. All of this compels the reader to read on.
Halfway through I turned to the back of the book to find out more about the author. Was this an imagined account based on, perhaps, the experiences of others, war journalism and so on? Absolutely not. Kevin Powers was a Michener Fellow in Poetry at the University of Texas at Austin, but he also served as a machine-gunner in 2004-5 at Tal Afar (presumably the 'Al Tafar' of the book is simply a transliteration of that). So he has seen all this and knows about it. What he brings to that knowledge is very considerable skill as a writer - the description is dense, the imagery often startling and the book is very well structured, the 'plot' very well managed. His characterisation of the company sergeant, Sergeant Sterling, is remarkable. This book is a good read, and a bit more than that too, but it surely also deserves the respect of something that has 'been there' and tells the truth. In places it is hugely moving - there is a death at the end of the 'October 2004' section which really does bring tears to the eyes, and the very end of the book resembles, and is as powerful as, Golding's account of Simon's death and its aftermath in 'Lord of the Flies'. Anyway, as an authentic insight into the modern hell of war in a strange land, and as a compelling narrative which rings with psychological truth, 'The Yellow Birds' deserves high praise.
P.S. (December 2012) I now see that the book has won the Guardian Best First Book Award - well deserved.