Sunday 30 September 2012

The Yellow Birds - back to form

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Sceptre: 2012). A novel centred on Private Bartle as he trains for, fights in, and returns from Iraq.

You all know how I feel about war novels. I’ve spoken about it before. Conflicted is probably the best word. Stuck between their importance in a “lest we forget” way, and their frequent straying into war voyeurism.

This (let’s be straight right from the very beginning) fits into neither camp. It neither makes all American heroes of those at war, nor does it distil war into a game. It does what few books about war can - it gives a new perspective.

OK, maybe not entirely 100% new (what is?). But new in the context of 21st century wars. It’s intensely focussed on the turmoil of the central protagonist, and it explores that through his pre-war, war, and post-war experience. It’s not full of “Scotty took point whilst I scanned our right flank for enemy snipers.” Nor is it full of “Jonny put his body on the line for us; for freedom.” And it leaves much of the political rhetoric that dominates most writing about 21st Century wars behind. Instead, it paints small, personal pictures of genuine, honest too goodness experience.

Sentiment. That’s what I’m getting at here. There’s absolutely no faux sentimentality in this. It’s entirely raw, Private Bartle opened up on every page recounting his candid reactions to the situations he’s in. Powers does a fantastic job of conveying confusion and loss and emotional disorientation, but conveying it sharply and showing (usually between the lines) what impact all of this has on Private Bartle.

The result is a beautiful little book. Read a few reviews of this, and that’s the word you’ll start to get sick of. Beautiful. But it is. There’s no getting around it. The stages, the relationships, the emotional breakdowns, the flashes of tenderness - it all adds up to beautiful.

Some of the other reviews will also tell you this is an “important” book (another phrase I hate - aren’t they all?) That lessons can be extrapolated from the story of Private Bartle. That wider political and societal lessons could be learned.

But that’s missing the point if you ask me. That sort of debate can easily obscure the book itself. Turn it from a gem into the tool of an agenda. I’m not saying those points and those lessons shouldn’t be debated and disseminated. I’m just saying don’t let them make you forget just how stunning this book is.

I don’t want to go overboard. I don’t think you’ll read this and reach some sort of epiphany, about war or anything else. The chances are you have heard much of this before. There are some recognisable footsteps being walked in here. Young men being emotionally destroyed. Survivor’s guilt. The shock of returning to normal life. Discomfort with hero worship. We’ve been to these places before, but not often, and rarely as poetically as in Yellow Birds.

Does it help that Kevin Powers is a former soldier? That he served in Iraq for two years? It probably does. It probably gives this book credibility. But it’s a piece of information worth forgetting when you’re reading this. You’ll tie yourself up in knots thinking of which are the snippets from his own war, and which are the bits he’s made up. Instead, focus on the writing. On his talent. On the fact that he shapes his language around emotions better than most other people out there.


Shake that one off. A return to form after last week’s debacle. And (fingers crossed) an interview with Kevin Powers could be coming to GBR soon (if the questions I’ve posed via his agent make their way through the Hotmail highway loudly enough).

Next week, something light hearted from a guy apparently everyone knew about but I only found a couple of weeks ago.

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