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.