Friday, November 30, 2012
REVIEW: The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
First of all I have to apologize for the absurdly long time it's taken me to write this review. I thought I had reviewed it already but turns out no.
A war novel set in Iraq and elsewhere, The Yellow Birds is a haunting, poetic and elegiac prose poem about the unknowabilities of war, life and death. John Bartle tells the story of his friendship with Daniel Murphy, a fellow private stationed at Al Tafar, Iraq. Chapters move around in time, from the war to their training in New Jersey, a stint in Germany and Bartle's life after discharge in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his mother, where his disaffectedness and alienation will remind some readers of the furloughed servicemen of Ben Fountain's brilliant Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. But mostly, this book won't remind you of any other book you've ever read.
I think what stands out for me most is Powers' direct tone. He's chosen every word with care, every nuance of phrase with intention. You can open it up to any page and find quiet, simple sentences that get under your skin with their fluid movement, an almost liquid quality to his writing. I don't even know what paragraph to pick out to show you the best, since just about the entire book has this suppleness to it. I feel like Powers worked this material over for a long time, with a poet's eye for detail.
And the story itself is of course profound and profoundly sad, disturbing and real. The difficulty of the material combined with the silkiness of the writing produce a dissonance, maybe like the mental disconnect felt by Bartle as he tries to come to terms with all that's happened, and with the future, too. It's a relatively short book that still takes a long time to read, because of this detail and the slow pace at which Powers rolls out the story of Bartle and Murphy and whatever became of the promise he made to Murphy's mother to bring back her son. Once you pick it up, you'll want to stay to find out, and when you do, you'll be changed in some way too.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.