Sam's Reviews > The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
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Sep 10, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: 1-contemp-literary, setting-war, read-2012, setting-middle-east-northafrica, reviewed
Read from September 15 to 17, 2012

I had not been aware of the apparent hype for The Yellow Birds before picking it up. What’s more, I'm generally not interested in contemporary war novels. Most of these novels only disappoint anyway. Can anything compete with Catch-22 and The Things They Carried? And yet I happened to glance at one review of The Yellow Birds and saw a quote that caught my eye. I had no context for it, but it nonetheless resonated with me so much that I had to seek out the book: “…I was full of time as my body would allow. But looking back from where I am, almost thirty, old enough, I can see myself for what I was. Barely a man. Not a man. Life was in me, but it splashed as if at the bottom of a nearly empty bowl” (p.38-9). How beautiful is that?

The premise is pretty simple. The Yellow Birds gets you inside the head of a young private, John Bartle, as he looks back on time he spent in Iraq and the relationship he had with one of his fellow soldiers that came to head in a traumatic way. He struggles to find some peace in that experience to be able to move forward in life after war. While in its outline it’s a conventional story, what’s remarkable about The Yellow Birds is the achingly beautiful and haunting way in which Kevin Powers tells this story. I was reading a library copy, and I knew instantly that I should’ve bought my own copy so that I could mark all of the stunning language that I came across during that first reading of it.

But don’t be fooled. This is about more than showing off pretty sentences, draping with glittery but meaningless metaphors and similes. Instead, the author marshals the beautiful language to illuminate new ways of seeing life. And it reminds you of the things you already knew but might’ve forgotten or didn't have the ability to articulate as well. Look at how he strikes at the heart of how we conceptualize our place in the world: “In that moment, I disowned the waters of my youth. My memories of them became a useless luxury, their names as foreign as any that could be found in Nineveh: the Tigris or the Chesapeake, the James or the Shatt al Arab…all belonged to someone else, and perhaps had never really been my own…and if I ever floated there again, out where the level of the water reached my neck, and my feet lost contact with its muddy bottom, I might realize that to understand the world, one’s place in it, is to be always at the risk of drowning” (p. 125).

The narration weaves back and forth between the time Bartle spends in Iraq and the period after he returns home. And as the story unfolds, Powers digs a bit further into Bartle’s psyche, chapter by chapter. For such a slim novel, the character development had enough depth to convey in an organic manner all of Bartle’s conflicting emotions--the alienation, relief, guilt, emptiness--to such a degree that I felt like I was being let in on a secret somehow. This slayed me: “You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes” (p. 134) (Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was also about an introspective soldier serving in the Iraq War, but it couldn’t move beyond trite, superficial characterizations, which drove me bananas.)

What happened to Bartle's friend, Private Murphy, is hinted at throughout the book, but you don’t see the full picture of the circumstances until we get through over three-quarters of the book. So there’s some suspense there, but it’s not really a plot-driven book. Powers doesn’t quite nail the ending, but since most of the book is so great, I can forgive the bit of sentimentality at the end.

I will never know what it’s like to fight a war. No amount of descriptions of what positions soldiers are taking, what kind of weapons they’re using, or where the enemies are advancing will ever come close to approximating what it’s like to be in the middle of one. I don’t read books about war for the action. I read books about war to understand the nature of war and of the human condition, the mindset of those who are at war and those who survive war. The Yellow Birds was an immensely satisfying read in this regard.
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