The Yellow Birds, By Kevin Powers
Tales from the front line by a new war poet
Sunday 09 September 2012
Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds is a short debut novel that arrives with heavyweight expectations. Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibí* and Alice Sebold have heaped praise on this lyrical account, based on Powers's own army experience, of US soldiers fighting in Iraq in 2005.
For a few pages, I thought Powers had gone to their heads. He can certainly write, specialising in incantatory rhythms and poetic touches that, despite frequent avowals to the contrary, loads The Yellow Birds with almost absurd significance. "The war tried to kill us in the spring as grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed." This gravely alliterative opening made me worry that The Yellow Birds was suffering a Napoleon complex: a small novel with delusions of grandeur, perhaps?
Fortunately, things quickly settle down. Although he never quite sheds his portentous tone, our narrator, 21-year-old Private John Bartle, proves a perceptive, eloquent and philosophical guide through the bombs, brutality and blood. He befriends new recruit Daniel "Murph" Murphy, naïve and sensitive to the point of being doomed. Shaping their fate is a distracted lieutenant, and the soldiers' real leader, the maverick, unhinged Sergeant Sterling.
The resulting storylines are enough to keep you reading. We learn early that Murphy dies in strange circumstances, but must wait to discover how, if not quite why. What holds our attention, however, is Powers's prose. Employing simple diction, he modulates the rhythms of his sentences: now, to dramatise sudden bursts of violence, now to navigate the long, fearful lacunae between the storms. He does American pastoral during a gorgeous but melancholy interlude when Bartle returns to his home state of Virginia.
The soldiers' lives are, in a profound sense, matters of fact, experienced second by second in the half-knowledge that death really may intrude itself the next instant. The tragedy of this process is that it de-humanises everyone involved. Motifs of erosion, disappearance and anonymity punctuate Bartle's narrative. Little deaths (sleeping, alcohol, anger, sex and insanity) distract Bartle from the proximity of the big sleep.
The resulting story is light on socio-political analysis, but strong on claustrophobia, chaos and constant fear. The reader is almost grateful when flickers of human vulnerability are glimpsed in this harsh universe: Bartle's mother holding her prodigal son for dear life; Murph obsessing over a female medic weeping for a recently deceased soldier. "The small area where she was … might have been the last habitat for gentleness and kindness that we'd ever know."
The Yellow Birds may not be the masterpiece some have cracked it up to be, but it is a wonderful, powerful novel that moves and terrifies.
Geoffrey Macnab reviews American Hustle, also starring Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
Michelle Nijhuis' daughter insists (s)he is, and she learnt a valuable lesson on gender in books
news Opponents claim it would stop performers such as Beyonce and Madonna appearing on TV
It takes a platoon of chefs, litres of brandy and rum, and almost 100kg of dried fruit
newsThat most ancient of crimes is on the rise, threatening farmers' livelihoods, community trust – and human health
Arts & Ents blogs
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 3 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 4 Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
- 5 Children evacuated from swimming pool after prosthetic leg mistaken for paedophile
- < Previous
- Next >