The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

Review published on August 2, 2013.Reviewed by Sara Garland

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

So what was it like out there?

This was the question most frequently posed to Kevin Powers, an American soldier, when he returned from his tour in Iraq in 2005. Consequently he has written this fictional book, to try and convey what it was like and what can never be forgotten.

The Yellow Birds is therefore a powerful depiction of life on the front-line, but moreover of the emotional impact on the soldiers the likes of Powers worked with, formed bonds with and depended upon, to the reverberations and everlasting impact on the soldier as an individual and to the families, whose son, daughters, brothers, sisters, uncles, nephews, aunties and nieces never return.

As such it is quite a serious and deeply emotional portrayal, with little reference to camaraderie. The role the Lieutenant plays in inspiring and motivating the young soldiers seems pivotal. The means to normalise and speak nonchalantly of killing is understandable, given the need to function and professionalise the act. Yet what is reflected is that the first kill is still haunting, however hard a soldier tries to extract him or herself from the deed.

The book follows the experience of Privates John Bartle and Daniel Murphy. Narrated by Bartle, it has quite a mature modulating almost poetic style of writing, for a debut novelist. Virtually from the outset as readers we learn that Bartle’s close friend Murph dies in not quite straight forward circumstances, though it is not clear how. As Bartle had promised Murph’s mother he would bring her son home safely you realise from the outset there is a sting in this tale. The book leaps back and forth between the Tour and life afterwards, which holds some intrigue, but for a compact book, it did make it dash about in rather a fractured manner over quite a short time frame of three years.

In Power’s exposé there is no drive or enthusiasm about going in to battle. Bartle’s lieutenant is battle fatigued. Rifles on roof tops are the norm. “Soldiers stay awake on fear and amphetamines and Tabasco sauce daubed into their eyes.”

At times it is philosophical. The risk of death is a constant reality, necessary to enable you to keep your wits about you. But it is also the baleful reminder of the authenticity of war and the ultimate price young soldiers recognise they may need to make. It is on the whole rather a melancholic account of events. But this almost helps to make it grittier, more realistic and does provide a as true a version fiction can impart what it was like to those of us lucky enough never to have been there.

A worthy read and winner of multiple book awards. Book group readers might also be interested to learn that a selection of question to stimulate discussion have been added to the back of the ward.


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