In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger.
Bound together since basic training when their tough-as-nails Sergeant ordered Bartle to watch over Murphy, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes impossible actions.
With profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a hidden war on mothers and families at home, THE YELLOW BIRDS is a groundbreaking novel about the costs of war that is destined to become a classic.” ~Goodreads
I don’t know how to even review The Yellow Birds (September 2012) properly.
I might not have ever picked up this fictional book about a man’s experience in the Iraq war if it wasn’t a book club pick for November at my library. War stories are just not my thing. Nothing good comes out of war and I am a peaceful, hippie-ish person by nature. But there are important and necessary stories that come out of wars and Kevin Powers’ book is no exception.
“All pain is the same. Only the details are different.”
Deemed “a classic of contemporary war fiction”, this book has such poetic and lyrically profound prose that I wasn’t surprised that Powers studied English at VCU and got an MFA in poetry. The experiences that Bartle goes through before, during and after the war are also not unbelievable since Powers himself served in Iraq as a machine gunner from 2004-2005. What prompted him to write this novel was a constant question he kept hearing after he returned from service, “So how was it over there?” When he was finally able to talk about it and put his emotions and experiences into words, he began the book.
“To say what happened, the mere facts, the disposition of events in time, would come to seem like a kind of treachery. The dominoes of moments, lined up symmetrically, then tumbling backward against the hazy and unsure push of cause, showed only that a fall is every object’s destiny. It is not enough to say what happened. Everything happened. Everything fell.”
Even though parts of the story takes place during wartime, it didn’t focus on the conflict but rather about the characters who find themselves caught up in war and struggle to not let it define them. This non-linear, fragmented structure makes this a challenging read. Was it intentional to write a narrator whose sense of self has also been fragmented and damaged? Were the less emotional responses written to paint a picture of a person who was also emotional distant due to the horrific images and situations he was in? Am I so dense as a reader that I wasn’t able to connect some of the long stringed sentences using esoteric language to connect with parts of the story? Maybe all of the above.
But as much as this story broke my heart and made me so incredible sad for all our veterans who unselfishly serve to give us freedoms we at times take for granted, I couldn’t get over this gorgeous writing. I will read anything by Powers because he is that good. He cracks you open with language, slays you, makes you pause and re-read sentences to understand.
“Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed. I knew, watching them, that if any given moment a measurement could be made it would show how tentative was my mind’s mastery over my heart. Such small arrangements make a life, and 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 the end of my war.”