Kevin Powers’ debut novel, The Yellow Birds, was another that passed me by last year despite the fact it was extensively praised on publication. There was the worry that its timeliness was as important as its quality in the reception it received: here was a novel at last about the Iraq war written by someone who was there. In fact, there was no need for concern: this is a finely crafted novel both well written and carefully structured.
Powers’ ambition can be seen from his opening sentence:
“The war tried to kill us in the spring.”
This is a sentence that seems designed for quizzes on ‘famous opening lines’, as well as to immediately give us a sense of the oppressive threat that surrounds the soldiers. He continues:
“As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.”
Of course, this almost poetic tone does not continue unabated – that would be wearing – but here is a writer who can write. He neither overdoes it nor pares the prose to an artificial simplicity. In this way, Powers conveys the experience of the ordinary soldier without patronising. Above all there is the constant threat of death. The narrator, Bartle, and the younger soldier he has made himself responsible for, Murphy, do not want to be the thousandth fatality:
“It seems absurd now that we saw each death as an affirmation of our lives. That each one of those deaths belonged to a time and therefore that time was not ours. We didn’t know the list was limitless. We didn’t think beyond a thousand.”
This retrospective view, with Bartle looking back on his experience, also enhances the narrative, as does the novel’s structure.
Though it begins in Iraq in September 2004, the second chapter takes us back to the previous December when Bartle and Murphy met for the first time. The Iraq chapters then alternate with those set after Bartle’s tour of Iraq is finished. This works narratively as we learn that something has happened in Iraq which Bartle regrets – he confesses to a priest, for example, “I just made a mistake is all.” It also makes clear that Powers is not interested in simply describing the war to us, but also in demonstrating how it affects the soldiers. It would obviously spoil things to reveal what that mistake is, but when all is revealed there is no sense of disappointment or artifice. Most surprisingly, I found the novel as interesting out of Iraq as I did when set there.
For anyone interested in the modern experience of war – and shouldn’t that be everyone as we are all connected to these conflicts somehow? – this is an important book.