Thursday, July 31, 2014

Literary Bite: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is the best book I have read in a while. It's intense but a fast read, and so well-written that you will love it. The non-linear narrative is takes place from 2003 to 2009, in Virginia, Germany, and Iraq, from a young private's enlistment to fighting in the Iraq War to his painful return to "normal" life afterwards.

The story is sad and beautiful and painfully real all at once. While heart-wrenching is a generally overused adjective, in this case it is totally applicable. Powers writes with rhythmic concision, making me want to read some sentences out loud to get the full effect -- "The world was paper-thin as far as I could tell. And the world was the orchard, and the orchard was what came next. But none of that was true. I was only afraid of dying." It's not pretty, how war transforms the characters, but it feels true. And his descriptions of the battlefield and his emotions throughout it all make you feel like you're there.

The story is about 21-year-old Pvt. John Bartle, who fights in Tal Afar in 2003. It's about of friendship, camaraderie, and loss...though I don't want to say too much and give anything away. Ever so occasionally Powers slips into stream-of-consciousness writing at times, which I actually really liked because it's a little convoluted but just coherent enough to make you feel it. For example, this is just part of one pages-long sentence that I really admire:
“Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sign posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you goona do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, and the one person you promised would live is dead..."
The author served with the U.S. Army in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq in 2004 and 2005 and The Yellow Birds is his first novel. The book took him four years to write, and Powers says that it started as "an attempt to reckon with one question: what was it like over there?" But he quickly decided that he was unequal to that task, because "war is only like itself".

This is the only war book I've read, so I don't know how it compares to others in its genre. Some reviews compare it to All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage.

Read this. Even if you don't read "war books." Because it's a good book, amazing piece of poetry and literature, and also because I feel like it's important. I have no idea how accurate or universal Powers' descriptions of the war and returning from war are, but I'm guessing he has a lot in common with a lot of young veterans today. This is all so very current...