The Yellow Birds is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined story about a soldier’s coming of age, a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq, and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory … Glimpses of ordinary life — a hyacinth garden, a swallow tracing the shape of an alley, an orchard on the edge of the city — alternate with scenes of horror that feel like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell … In conveying to the reader just how terribly young his heroes are, Mr. Powers gives us a visceral sense of the arcs their lives will trace and their bone-weary yearning to ‘return to ordinary.’ He somehow manages to write about the effect the war has on them — and, in Bartle’s case, its psychological aftermath — with enormous emotional precision.
...as compact and powerful as a footlocker full of ammo … The novel moves, fitfully, through Virginia and Iraq and Germany and New Jersey and Kentucky, from 2003 to 2009. Recalling the war, Bartle says, is ‘like putting a puzzle together from behind: the shapes familiar, the picture quickly fading, the muted tan of the cardboard backing a tease at wholeness and completion.’ This serves the story…[as] the fractured structure replicates the book’s themes. Like a chase scene made up of sentences that run on and on and ultimately leave readers breathless, or like a concert description that stops and starts, that swings and sways, that makes us stamp our feet and clap our hands — the nonlinear design of Powers’s novel is a beautifully brutal example of style matching content. War destroys.
The Yellow Birds is a rich chronicle of mendacity: men lie to each other and to themselves; ‘memory’ itself, the narrator observes, is half imagined … The Yellow Birds...achieves its most surprising and authentically obscene moments in a different register altogether. The book revives the World War I tradition that the late Paul Fussell called ‘war pastoral,’ a mode practiced by Owen’s soldier-poet contemporaries (Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden, among others), who exposed the old lie by transplanting the pastoral imagery of the English poetic tradition to the wasted soil of the trenches … Powers’s brutal lyricism feels fresh because it recalls a mode so decisively eclipsed by the high-octane hyperrealism of so much contemporary writing about war. It is this tenacious lyric voice that sets his novel, heavy though it is with war’s silencing pain and shame, apart.
The Yellow Birds is the narrative of a soldier-witness still numbed by what he's seen. It's a beautiful and horrifying trance of a book, as Powers takes us again and again to a dream-like battlefield where unimaginable cruelties are inflicted upon combatants and civilians alike … A young man who got beat up for reading poetry in high school, Pvt. Bartle signed up for the Army to prove his courage. He finds his poetic and philosophical sensibilities put to use observing his brothers die … The Yellow Birds might just be the first American literary masterpiece produced by the Iraq war, even if an imperfect one. It is, without a doubt, a powerful and disturbing statement about the brutality of that conflict, and of the deep wounds inflicted on thousands of our citizen-soldiers.
The Yellow Birds reads like a collection of 11 linked short stories. Except for one that takes place in Germany, they move back and forth between Iraq in the fall of 2004 and the United States from 2003 to 2009. The narrator is John Bartle, a pensive, guilt-ridden vet recalling his friendship with another young soldier he calls Murph … The first chapter demonstrates what Powers can do so well, and anthology editors should be fighting over the rights to excerpt it from the novel...Throughout The Yellow Birds, amid the gore and the terror and the boredom, you can hear notes of Powers’s work as a poet … Frankly, the parts of The Yellow Bird are better than the whole. Some chapters lack sufficient power, others labor under the influence of classic war stories, rather than arising organically from the author’s unique vision. Murph risks being a hick cliche, and moments of recycled Hemingway sound glib.
Powers captures his reader by telling his story like it’s a devastating riddle—the kind that forces you to follow his clues even though you are certain that you won’t like what you find. He taunts his reader in several ways, most notably through his chosen chronology. He begins his work in-country so that his readers can meet Murph, Bartle, and his other characters, including the war itself … Like any good riddle, the raconteur’s control over the details and the rhythms results in a reveal that is nothing short of astonishing. Powers maximizes his control over these rhythms, over his story and how and when he wants his reader to hear it, through his poetic, lyrical style. He selects wisely from a literary inventory well beyond his years and develops his themes through images, sometimes fresh, sometimes recurring, that are perfect for what he is trying to convey.
For the most part, The Yellow Birds does a superb job of balancing the impersonal (war) and the personal (us). ‘I'd been trained to think war was the great unifier,’ says John Bartle, the young private who narrates the novel … Powers' theorizing can sometimes get a bit heavy, his writing a bit writerly, but only sometimes. Besides, his details always make up for it: the way Murph's mom, when she visits during basic, has smudges of makeup on her wrists from wiping away the tears; the way the soldiers share ‘a can of care-package Kodiak’; the way the bodies in Baghdad accumulate, ‘faces puffed and green, allergic now to life’ … While The Yellow Birds is not quite a classic, it is a wonderful book.
The intimacy of Kevin Powers' story uses the now banal horror of war as a backdrop for the poignant story of two boys in way over their heads. In Al Tafar, Iraq, Private Murphy, 18, and Private Bartle, 21, do all they can to protect each other through endless days of fighting the same battle over and over again. Only the names of the dead are changed … In quiet, beautiful prose, Powers has painted an unforgettable portrait of so much that is wrong about the conduct of war and peace for soldiers.
How to tell a true war story? That question, once posed by Tim O'Brien, comes to mind when you read The Yellow Birds. Kevin Powers chooses to tell his story by throwing sequential narrative to the Iraqi desert winds. This moody, petulant, often darkly beautiful and shell-shocked account of a young recruit on the ground in Iraq, moves us back and forth between the war and the main character, machine gunner John Bartle's return to his Southern country home … How to tell a true war story if you're more a poet than a novelist? Tell it as a poet would. Tell it as Kevin Powers does. Tell it as a poem.
There is no single incident that sends ‘Murph,’ still a teenager, off the rails. War itself is too plotless for that, and it has a way of turning traditional definitions of sanity and madness inside out … Powers, himself an Iraq vet, shifts the story back and forth in time from Iraq to stateside to deliberately fog the truth about Murph's fate and John's complicity in it. Powers earns the right to shuffle the deck through the clarity of his sentences: His flat, affectless prose is a barrier against piety and sentiment, but when John's emotions run free the lines gain a run-on rhythm that's practically biblical in authority … The Yellow Birds has the outward simplicity of a fable, and it captures the collision of camaraderie and grotesque violence that's all but required in every war story. But beneath its veneer of clean prose is a complex reckoning with how much words matter.
This is one of the least romantic novels about combat ever published. Soldiers and interpreters die sudden, violent deaths, and moments later the ones who survive are munching on the contents of home-sent care packages … In its best moments, The Yellow Birds trains its gaze away from Bartle's murmured introspection and discovers that soldiers are not alone in feeling this way.
The good news is that Powers tells his story in a lyrical style that takes us deeply and effectively inside the voice and consciousness of his narrator, an emotionally damaged Army private named Bartles. The bad news is that the author rarely lets us out of that consciousness, keeping us locked there even through what should be vivid battle scenes, necessary character development, and essential passages of dialogue … Despite the fact that we’re locked in Bartles’ consciousness the whole time, Powers saves his Big Reveal for the penultimate chapter, which is not necessarily a bad thing, because it adds a modicum of tension to a story badly in need. The problem becomes one of over-charged expectations, however, and that Big Reveal isn’t big enough — even for Powers the author, who spends too little time describing it before taking us off once again into one of Bartles’ lyrical meditations.
This moving debut from Powers (a former Army machine gunner) is a study of combat, guilt, and friendship forged under fire … As a poet, the author’s prose is ambitious, which sets his treatment of the theme apart—as in this musing from Bartle: ‘though it’s hard to get close to saying what the heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of those parentheses which were the beginning and end of my war.’ The sparse scene where Bartle finally recounts Murphy’s fate is masterful and Powers’s style and story are haunting.
In a rash statement, one that foreshadows ominous things to come, Bartle promises Murph’s mother that he’ll look out for him and ‘bring him home to you’ … As a result of his experiences, Murph starts to act strangely, becoming more isolated and withdrawn until he finally snaps. Eventually he, too, becomes a victim of the war, and Bartle goes home to face the consequences of a coverup in which he’d participated. Powers writes with a rawness that brings the sights and smells as well as the trauma and decay of war home to the reader.