The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Everywhere John looks, he sees Murph.
He flinches when cars drive past. His fingers clasp around the rifle he hasn’t held for months. Wide-eyed strangers praise him as a hero, but he can feel himself disappearing.
Back home after a year in Iraq, memories swarm around him: bodies burning in the crisp morning air. Sunlight falling through branches; bullets kicking up dust; ripples on a pond wavering like plucked strings. The promise he made, to a young man’s mother, that her son would be brought home safely.
For the last few weeks I have been hearing endless wonderful things about this book, particularly from other colleagues and fellow Twitter followers. I have to admit, without such high praise, I’m not wholly convinced I would have picked this up myself. But who isn’t intrigued by the war in Iraq, particularly written from the perspective of a veteran who has seen it all for himself? I approached this book with caution, knowing full well that it could stir up some real truths behind the war, and the horrors our soldiers have to endure out there. But it often feels important to read something like this, to put yourself in their shoes and experience some semblance of what it must be like for anyone who’s been to Iraq in the past ten years.
What first took me by surprise with The Yellow Birds is the sheer talent behind Kevin Powers’ writing. This is probably a slightly judgemental and stereotypical thing to say, but I’ve never really imagined soldiers to be literary writers, but being a self-professed poet, Powers’ prose really is lyrical and beautiful in every way. The poet inside him definitely shines through in every sentence, and you get a sense that he has considered every word with the utmost care and attention. For example, here is one of the first paragraphs in the novel that really struck a chord and stayed with me ever since;
“The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.”
So now, you’re probably thinking – why have I rated a novel with such beautiful and powerful prose only a mere 3 out of 5? Well, let me explain. I know many people will probably argue against my rating, but I have to be true to myself. It’s easy to see that Powers has an extraordinary talent here, and for a first novel this is a truly great achievement, and it undoubtedly makes a great war novel. But, as a fellow colleague said, it is a hard book to love. What I loved about that opening paragraph was how simple and stark it was, in a way that hits you and takes you by surprise. If the whole novel had been written like this I have no doubt I would have fallen in love with it. But sadly, Powers has a tendency to over-write and as a result his prose becomes far too flowery for my liking. I don’t need a five line description of the dust, or the various shrubberies around. I want stark and brutal honesty. I want to feel like I am right there in that war. I just felt that Powers focused far too much on scenery rather than his characters, and as a result his characters often became a little flat and stereotypical. I think it’s a case of the poet overshadowing the novelist, and to be frank; I’ve never liked flowery poetry. I never really felt much of an emotional to connection to his characters because the descriptions often got in my way and prevented me from doing so. Yes, what was happening was sad, there’s no doubt about it – but it didn’t leave me with an overwhelming sense of devastation like I felt it should have.
Kevin Powers is a good writer, and one with plenty of promise. I have no doubt that he has the abilities to create the kind of novel I could really love, but The Yellow Birds isn’t quite it for me. It’s a very literary portrayal of war, and one which appeal to some but not all. I only wish I could have loved it as much as everyone else seemed to. Powers is said to be working on another novel about a plantation owner during the Civil War era, and I will definitely be looking out for this one; I only hope this time he will be able to separate his poetry from his prose.
The Yellow Birds is out now, published by Sceptre. A big thank you goes to the publisher for providing me a copy for review.