Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

September 13, 2012 General Fiction, Little, Brown & Company, Review 7

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (September 11, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 0316219363
  • Source: Publisher

In this wholly unique first-hand experience of the Iraq war, readers follow the path of private John Bartle on his first tour of duty. Told in alternating time-lines from his pre-tour training, his time spent in Iraq, and his homecoming, readers are granted completely unique access to a side of a war authors are just starting to write about.

Powers not only narrates the acts of war, but most importantly, the psychological side-effects of the war, the feelings experienced by the soldiers fighting for our country:

You’re nothing, that’s the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust.  And we somehow thought those numbers were a sign of our own insignificance. We thought that if we remained ordinary, we would not die. We confused correlation for cause and saw a special significance in the portraits of the dead, arranged neatly next to the number corresponding to their place on the growing list of the dead.

The soldiers experience a roller coaster ride of emotions, from fear to exhilaration, from pride to depression.

While in basic training, Bartle makes the promise to bring another private, Murphy, safely home. These two young men with vastly different lives, the only thing they had in common was the war for which they were fighting. This promise, made to Murphy’s mother, haunted Bartle during his tour and for the months following. It was a promise he would never forgive himself for making.

Powers vividly portrays the war in a completely honest, almost visceral, manner. A veteran of the war in Iraq himself, Powers is able to accurately portray the impact of the war on those who fought it, an lasting impact that extends far beyond the end of their tour when they return home:

…home, too, was hard to get an image of, harder still to think beyond the last curved enclosure of the desert, where it seemed I had left the greater portion of myself as one among innumerable grains of sand, how in the end the weather-beaten stone is not one stone but only that which has been weathered, as a result, an example, of slow erosion on a thing by wind or waves that break against it, so that the else of anyone involved ends up deposited like silt spilling out into an estuary, or gathered at the bottom of a river in a city that is all you can remember.

As you can see by the passages I’ve quoted above, Powers uses this novel to depict his time spent in Iraq, doing so in a completely artful and almost poetic manner, his words immersing you in a truly tumultuous experience.   What makes this novel so profound is Power’s ability to show how the soldiers, whether they return home from the battle are not, are ultimately casualties of war themselves. They return home battered shells of the individuals they once were. Although technically leaving the battlefield, the battle inside them rages on.

Though short in length, this novel has a lasting, haunting effect on readers. This is a novel that shouldn’t be avoided due to the subject matter or overall tone, but one that must be read so we, as civilians, can understand the impact of war. This understanding will perhaps give us a completely different view of a war we will never see ourselves, a war we only catch glimpses of on television.  War isn’t a subject matter that should be ignored or avoided, but viewed with out filters or edited by the news stations. This novel will grant readers that experience.

Weeks after reading this, this novel continues to haunt me.  When the anniversary of 9/11 came around, I immediately thought of this book and of all the soldiers fighting for our country in the hopes of preventing another terror attack. Now that I’ve seen this small glimpse inside the war from the viewpoint of those serving it, I have an even stronger amount of respect for those that fight for our country.  Pick up this novel. Experience the war from a truly unique viewpoint. You won’t regret it. Highly recommended.

7 Responses to “Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers”

  1. Jennifer
    Twitter: jenhartling

    Thank you for your review of this book. I’ve been thinking of picking it up and you’ve made up my mind for me.

  2. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread

    This seems like it should be required reading. I couldn’t help but mentally classify it as a modern-day “The Things They Carried”, which is the best compliment I could ever give. I must get my hands on this.

    • Jenn
      Twitter: jennbookshelves

      Yes! I definitely picked up on similarities with THE THINGS THEY CARRIED and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.

  3. Heather
    Twitter: BookAddictHeath

    This sounds really powerful. My brother is an active duty Marine and has served two tours in Afghanistan … so I think this might hit kind of close to home but also would be an important book for me to experience.

  4. Stephanie
    Twitter: qbibliophile

    Excellent review. I hadn’t heard of this book, and it sounds like something I’d love. I am adding it to my list as we speak.

  5. Beth F
    Twitter: BethFishReads

    Great review. This seems to be such a powerful book. Not the kind of thing I normally read, but perhaps I need to pick it up.