Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (London: Sceptre, 2013), 242pp
"Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying. Not even being ordinary. Still, I like to think there was a ghost of compassion in me then, and that if I'd had a chance to see those hyacinths I would have noticed them." (pg. 14).
[Note:- This review may contain spoilers, of a sort. I'll be referring to a certain character's death, but we are told by the author rather early on in the book (page 14, to be exact) that this character will be killed, so make your own judgement about whether you consider this a spoiler.]
The Yellow Birds is fiction, but it permeates with hard-won truths. Everything about it seems authentic, and even the lyricism of the prose never feels indulgent or mawkish. No doubt, much of this authenticity comes from Kevin Powers the soldier, from Richmond, Virginia (like his protagonist, John Bartle), who fought in Iraq (again, like Bart) and relayed his experiences in this, a sort of memoir posing as fiction. But authenticity also comes from Kevin Powers the writer, who has made his first novel such a mesmeric read.
It is not a perfect book, to be sure, but it misses out on perfection only marginally. The first chapter of The Yellow Birds has instantly become one of my most favourite pieces of prose. I am a big fan of Ernest Hemingway, and it is clear from his writing that Powers is too. Powers speaks in his own voice, but the Hemingway echoes early on are spine-tingling. A somewhat ordinary line on page eight about the sky being heavy with snow was so Hemingway-esque that I had to stop reading and just stare at the words. It never appears that Powers is trying to ape Hemingway, but parts of the book, and this first chapter in particular, are as good as anything Hemingway ever wrote.
I have read some excellent books by first-time authors, but none so assured as Powers. Every literary technique he uses is perfectly measured. The matter-of-fact reportage of various characters' deaths, major or minor, is evocative, allowing us to experience the deaths with the same ordinariness that Bartle felt. As Powers writes, "Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed... We only [paid] attention to rare things, and death was not rare." (pg. 11). When Bartle's first-person narrative tells us on page 14 that his best friend Murph is killed, this somehow makes it even more shocking, both in that moment and later on when the event itself is remembered, than if we had experienced it as a surprise. We are slowly fed little details about the circumstances of Murph's death; I am a big fan of the 'slow reveal' technique and Powers' use of it is assured. Even characters that are one-scene wonders - the girl with the auburn curls in Chapter 1, the crying female medic in Chapter 8 - make a lasting, somewhat haunting, impression.
Aside from its literary strengths, The Yellow Birds also has a lot of important stuff to say on the nature of war. Powers has said that his motivation for writing the book was to answer those who asked him, upon his return from Iraq, "what was it like over there?" As I have not experienced either combat or military life, I cannot attest as to whether he has succeeded, but this book does evoke a lot of emotions from its reader. One service that the book has done for me is to make the Iraq War - and modern warfare in general - more accessible to me. You see, modern warfare, both in popular culture depictions and in my university years studying history and politics, has always seemed rather cold. Distant, technical, clinical. It is played out on news channels and lacks intimacy. It always seemed to be about jargon (e.g. kill ratio, collateral damage), technical specifications and small, non-linear battles. In contrast, depictions of older wars - say, for example, World War Two - tend to evoke the grime and guts of warfare better: the fear of a soldier, a human being; the shred of a bullet; the etch of a tank tread in the mud; the whine of a mortar shell. What Powers does so well is strip modern warfare of its platonic distance and elitism, bringing it into line with those older depictions. As strange as it may sound, at a few points I forgot the book was set in the Iraq War in 2004 and began seeing it as a World War Two story. Powers makes his story human; he reminds us that every war, even modern high-tech ones, needs boots on the ground, and human beings to fill those boots.
As I said earlier, however, The Yellow Birds is not perfect. It starts exceptionally well, and Powers would have been well-advised to build on the strengths evident in the early chapters. In these, we learn about Bartle's psyche and outlook through his interaction with external factors; broadly speaking, the war and the various things it throws at him. Unfortunately, in later chapters Bartle monologues more on his inner feelings rather than the external things that are oppressing him. Consequently, to mirror Bartle's soul-searching, the author's prose becomes more insular. Whilst still enjoyable, it loses somewhat the bracing Hemingway-esque brevity evident early on. In fact, it becomes a bit Terrence Malick-y, a bit Thin Red Line-ish. By the end, the clear, hard-hitting messages of the early chapters had been replaced by a portrait of an abstract and labyrinthine consciousness. As it had started so well, when it started to become denser I could only come to the conclusion that the book was losing its way. This was confirmed to me by the implausible nature of Bartle and Sterling's response to Murph's death, and various other events which were inadequately resolved, such as why Bartle wrote that letter to Murph's mother.
But I choose to focus on the high points of The Yellow Birds, and they are very high indeed. Thematically, there is much one could discuss, but the hyacinth in particular make an impression. The line from the book that I quoted at the start of this review - "I like to think there was a ghost of compassion in me then, and that if I'd had a chance to see those hyacinths I would have noticed them." - I initially associated with the character of Malik in Chapter 1, and one can indeed interpret it in this way. But when one reads that Murph's body is found "covered in a patch of lifeless hyacinth" (pp204-5), I began to re-evaluate that earlier passage: maybe it not only Malik's garden story that Bartle was referring to but in fact witnessing Murph among the patch of hyacinth. Looking at Murphy's body, he sees the hyacinths it lies in; he notices them. There is a theme of perception, of truth, of acceptance here that I have not yet resolved in my mind, but it is certainly profound and certainly deliberate on the author's part. The Yellow Birds almost makes a rod for its own back in starting off so excellently, so that the only way is down. It starts off at its peak, and diminishes in gradients towards its uneven ending. However, that initial peak is so high, so stratospheric, that even at the end of its decline it is still at a sufficient height to be regarded as a great book.