Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Title: The Yellow Birds
Author: Kevin Powers
Pages: 240
Genre: Fiction; War
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co. (Hachette Books)
Pub. Date: September 11, 2012

I haven't read many war books so I can't compare this to any, though critics and readers alike have made comparisons to Tim O'Brien's classic, The Things They Carried. I can say, though, that I could easily see this becoming a modern classic in its own right. Kevin Powers, an Iraqi veteran, deployed to Al Tarf in 2004,  describes the experience of being at war through the eyes of 21-year-old Private Bartle.
"I hadn't given a lot of thought to actually going to war, but it was happening now, and I was still struggling to find a sense of urgency that seemed proportional to the events unfolding in my life. I remember feeling relief in basic while everyone else was frantic with fear. It had dawned on me that I'd never have to make a decision again. That seemed freeing, but it gnawed at some part of me even then. Eventually, I had to learn that freedom is not the same thing as the absence of accountability" (nook pg. 24)
The Yellow Birds jumps back and forth in time starting with a scene from in Al Tafar in 2004, returning to 2003 just before deploying, and then moving forward to the after effects in 2005 and beyond. I was afraid this would confuse me, but it was always clear what was happening and when.  After reading this, I truly feel like I gained some insight into what it's like being at war. Private Bartle reflects on the attitude he has to take on war, such as emotionally distancing yourself from feelings related to death, since the death of people around you is expected.

Bartle meets 18-year-old Daniel Murphy at training prior to deployment and makes a promise to Murphy's mother that he'll protect Murphy and bring him back home. We learn early on that Murphy doesn't, in fact, make it home (this is not a spoiler); this is a situation for which Bartle feels extreme grief and guilt, especially at how it all happens. We don't find out until later on what exactly happened out there, so in a way the story takes on a mystery element as we figure it out in bits and pieces. Bartle also reflects, though, on the differences between how he and others take on the war, and how this affects their ability to survive physically and emotionally.

The Yellow Birds expertly depicts the thoughts and feelings of those soldiers in the war without overstating anything. Surprisingly, I thought there was pretty minimal detail related to gore or killing or anything you'd think you might find in a novel about war. It says and shows what it needs to and leaves it at that. It's no wonder this book was a finalist for the National Book Award. The passages were beautiful; I bookmarked my way through my reading. This is the kind of book I can definitely see myself returning to for a re-read. This was one of my favorite reads this year!

With that, I'll leave you with another quote I liked:
"Maybe if things had happened a little differenty in Al Tafar it could have been like that. But things happened the way they happened without regard to our desire for them to have happened another way. Despite an age-old instinct to provide an explanation more complex than that, something with a level of profundity and depth which would seem commensurate wtih the confusion I felt, it really was that simple." (nook pg. 41).


Jenners said...

The more I hear about this book, the more it is becoming a must read. I want to read the O'Brien book too.

Meg @ A Bookish Affair said...

I still need to read The Things They Carried. This book definitely sounds good to me as well!

Juju at Tales of said...

I love that the book that rocked both of us were emotional reads. This sounds great. Nice review :)

Sandy Nawrot said...

I loved The Things They Carried, and this one seems very similar but with a different war, which has different repercussions. I'm going to have to make time for this one.

Zibilee said...

I haven't read The Things They Carried, but have it. I really want to read this one as well. It sounds like the author gets the serious brutality of war, and the disassociation that can come with being a participant. Even though I haven't read the book, I do believe that it should be a finalist for the prize. Excellent and in depth review today, Jenny. I really enjoyed reading it and having your opinion on it.

Aarti said...

I love The Things They Carried, so every time I see a comparison between this one and that, I get nervous/excited. I just finished The Round House, which is often compared to To Kill a Mockingbird - that was really excellent, too.

nomadreader said...

So glad you liked this one! I'm reading Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk (the other literary Iraq War book of the moment), and it is so absolutely different. It's making me think of The Yellow Birds quite often though:-)

Hyacinth Marius said...

Beautifully written, Kevin Powers' use of language often took my breath away. It was a realistic, raw view into the lives young men and women who go to war and the profound changes they must deal with forever after.
Made me think...every generation that goes to war produces just such literature, yet we do not learn from it.
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