Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers


Kevin Powers’ debut novel is a remarkable achievement

No less a cultural titan than actor Damian Lewis gives his stamp of approval to Kevin Powers’ award-winning first novel The Yellow Birds, which tells the story of US soldier John Bartle’s tour of duty in Iraq in 2004, the terrible things he saw there, and the almost impossible task he has of returning to civilian life in rural Virginia afterwards. Lewis, of course, appears in the TV series Homeland as an Iraq veteran turned traitor (or does he? I’ve only seen Series One and couldn’t face another season of double-crosses and poor plotting), and is therefore the perfect go-to commentator on a book which describes what a character he once played on TV might have experienced in real life.

A novel that brings us news from a place that stands large in the cultural psyche but which most of us have little access to

I’m picking on this a little unfairly, as there’s very little else to say against The Yellow Birds, a novel that brings us news from a place that stands large in the cultural psyche but which most of us have little access to. Powers served in the military himself, and so writes with considerable authority (and an admirable level-headedness) of events and scenarios most of his readers can only imagine, and imprecisely at that. As well as a veteran, Powers is a poet, perhaps an unlikely combination; The Yellow Birds sits at an unusual juncture, and is all the better for that.

Wisely, his novel isn’t trying to be “about” Iraq as a whole, but tells a much smaller and more personal story of the relationship between 19 year-old John Bartle and his best friend Daniel Murphy, called Murph, who goes to pieces in Iraq and meets a terrible end. His death is telegraphed almost from the start – we learn of his doom slightly before he first appears “in person” – and so is the cause: unlike Bartle, who swallows what he sees and tries not to think too much about it, Murph lets himself feel too much. The men’s superior officer, Sergeant Sterling, sums up the danger his charges face: “‘If you get back to the States in your head before your ass is there, then you are a fucking dead man.’” The Yellow Birds is tremendously subtle, meting out the story of Murph’s disintegration in careful instalments, avoiding sensational twists, just as it does the consequences of Bartle’s actions. Having made an unwise promise to Murph’s mother LaDonna, before they leave – “I promise I’ll bring him home to you” – Bartle finds himself writing to LaDonna in the guise of Murph himself, as if writing in his friend’s voice as if he were still alive might bring him back, or stop the mother learning of her son’s death. Of course, this is a betrayal of sorts too, and the sad, low-key climax of the book sees Bartle having to deal with his mistake, and hints at the impossibility of any soldier returning to “real life” after such experiences.

Power comes from the rapid intercutting between the Blue Ridge setting, all creeks, trees, boulders and birches, and the arid, blasted urban ruinscape of occupied Iraq

To hold off revealing the full story of Murphy’s death and its aftermath, the narrative skips about in chronology, covering Bartle’s signup, tour of duty, and return to what used to be his home life in Virginia. Powers is especially good on landscape, and some of The Yellow Birds’s power comes from the rapid intercutting between the Blue Ridge setting, all creeks, trees, boulders and birches, and the arid, blasted urban ruinscape of occupied Iraq, where every half-demolished building could conceal a sniper, every corpse a bundle of explosives. Here he is at home: “The leaves in the canopies of central Virginia’s hardwood forests had begun their pre-autumnal yellow tightening and they hung over the clearing and the creek and the light fell through them in a way that I was fond of and the morning was kind of soft-edged and clumsy like I’d been seeing it through gauze.” (This, in its run-on series of “and”s and lack of commas, smacks of Hemingway, the Papa it might do American writers some good to finally slay.) And here in Iraq, in the bravura opening section, as tense and immersive a depiction of the battlefield as I’ve read: “The tracers reached out from all the dark spaces in the buildings across the field, and there were many more bullets than streaks of phosphorescence. We heard them tear at the air around our ears and smack into the clay brick and concrete. We did not see Malik get killed, but Murph and I had his blood on both our uniforms.”

Powers’ prose is in the tradition of “muscular” American prose, a style which draws much from reportage and eschews much in the way of simile and metaphor. That streamlined, functional prose, though, with its whiff of the creative writing class about it, is no less artificial a construct than very purple stuff. I get the sense that readers have been trained (Hemingway again) to treat war stories – especially contemporary ones about conflicts which are recent or even ongoing – written in anything more poetic language as somehow disingenuous, or misleading, as if they might be propaganda. (See the lukewarm reviews of Denis Johnson’s 2007 novel about Vietnam, Tree of Smoke, which is far more impressionistic than “realistic”). When Powers introduces stream of consciousness, then, in a two-page sentence, it’s jarring, coming after 150+ pages of measured, assured, carefully meted-out prose; this loss of control is clearly meant to mimic his narrator’s coming apart at the seams, but it sits uneasily in a book which, largely about that very unravelling, otherwise eschews showiness of technique and is the more powerful for it.

Don’t just take Damien Lewis’s word for it: it’s rare enough to encounter a novel so assured, insightful and moving as The Yellow Birds. That this should be Kevin Powers’ first novel makes it remarkable.