Author: Kevin Powers
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).