Releasing your war novel on 11 September is a risky business. If it’s really good, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the important message your novel has; if it’s really bad, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the cheap way people cash in on days like this to play on the public’s emotions. Fortunately, The Yellow Birds ticks so many boxes on my “good novel” list – less than 250 pages, fragmented narrative, gorgeous language, depressing content. It’s like this was written just for me.
Bartle and Murph were deployed to Iraq. But Murph never came back. Haunted by the promise he made to Murph’s mother before they left, Bartle cannot stop thinking about the friend left behind in a foreign land. As we flit between past, present and future, and the story of what really happened to Murph becomes clear, a devastating tale of men under pressure emerges. No one will ever be the same again.
The biography at the back on the book mentions two things that I can only imagine are the most influential parts of Powers’ life on this novel – his time in Iraq as a machine gunner, and his MFA in poetry.Obviously it’s not hard to see the influence the first had on this novel, but the main achievement of this novel, for me, though, is the language. The first paragraph is a beautifully haunting personification of the war itself, describing it as hungry. I could block-quote almost every paragraph in this novel, it is so gorgeously written. But what makes it even more amazing is one passage, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, in which the mask slips. I can’t decide if it’s the mask of the narrator, or of Powers himself, but the perfectly controlled, structured language of the rest of the novel falls away, and for a one-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph, expletives and dirty language, the likes of which have been, up until now, not used, are utilised to brutally attack the war machine. It’s a section that proves to me two things – one, Powers has clearly spent a lot of time crafting a poetic style, which is highly effective; and two, this is a story that is close to his heart.
There are three narratives running in parallel: the first, in 2004, while Bartle and Murph are in Iraq; the second, in 2003, while the two are still in training in America; and the third, in 2005, when John has returned to America after finishing his deployment. Each one shines light on a different stage of the cycle of a soldier’s life. We start with Bartle and Murph patrolling This changes as the two are shipped off to Al Tafar, Iraq (Powers was stationed in Tal Afar). In a foreign, hostile land the two are forced to become closer, relying on on another, as well as the rest of their platoon, to simply stay alive. It’s hard to decide whether or not these soldiers are nice people. Most of them are just people, with flaws just like the rest of us.
It’s not just the people Powers describes with vivid detail. The milieu of the Iraq war – the desolation of a desert landscape – the heat, the wind, the sand – as well as the relationship between the occupying forces and everyday Iraqis, are clearly drawn from personal experience. The first major character death is that of the Iraqi interpreter travelling with the platoon. This is not a surprise – we hear of Iraqis working with Americans being killed far too regularly. But Bartle and Murph are more concerned with being killed themselves – the death toll is rapidly reaching 1000, and they don’t want to be the 1000th American troop killed in Iraq. It becomes a powerful recurring motif throughout the novel, of the death count rising, catching up with soldiers still on the ground.
When Bartle returns to America, he moves back home to live with his mother. As with all returning soldier stories, he has trouble readjusting to a life of relative comfort. He becomes isolated and introverted, moving from his childhood bedroom to a shed in his backyard. This doesn’t last long, however, and he eventually moves out of home, opting to live in an abandoned factory just out of town. In what is probably the most horrific scene – and there are certainly no shortage of candidates here – Bartle finds himself awoken next to a river bed, having been dragged out of the river. It is never made explicit if he jumped or simply slipped, but the reaction of the police who save him is terrifying. Though they suspect a suicide attempt, once they discover Bartle is a former soldier, they just leave him alone. They don’t bother to give him a psych evaluation, because he is a solder, not in spite of it. It’s a damning indictment of how soldiers are treated when they return to modern America.
There is a sting in the tail. It is not until the final pages that we discover what it is that has killed Daniel Murphy. It is not a regular shoot-out, it is not friendly fire, and it is not an IED. Murph goes AWOL, forcing the rest of the platoon to search for him for several days. In the pre-deployment sequences, Murph seemed to be a little nervous, a little unsure, about the whole adventure, and the stresses of war have clearly affected him more than most. While their sergeant coped with it by being a dick, and Bartle seems to be able to bottle it up inside, something inside Murph snaps, and he runs away. Of course, Iraq is still a dangerous place, and so he ends up dead. It’s not a pretty sight, and really hammers home the message Powers is imparting here – war is hell.
From what I can only describe as one of the most arresting first lines I’ve read in ages (“The war tried to kill us in the spring”), to a final, surprisingly redemptive scene, The Yellow Birds marks Kevin Powers as a talent to watch. The collision of perfectly formed, poetic sentences with an horrific subject matter – and making this work – is a sure sign that Powers is a gifted writer. Let’s hope whatever he does next doesn’t disappoint.