Tag Archives: Iraq

Booker Prize 2015: Modern Britain

The Americans this year are all about family. There are no big state-of-the-nation novels about America here this year. The Brits, though, seem to be in a more self-reflective mood, and there’s a particularly nice piece of symmetry that the two novels here are are written by Granta Best Young British Novelists—Andrew O’Hagan in 2003 and Sunjeev Sahota in 2013.

Andrew O’Hagan was last shortlisted for the Booker in 1999 for his first novel Our fathers. Sixteen years later, The illuminations, a novel about, amongst other things, the Iraq War, is in contention.

Anne lives in a nursing home, where her neighbour Maureen comes over to help her remember what she’s forgotten. Together they go to the Memory Club to remind themselves what they no longer know—for Anne, this means remembering her life as a photographer, as well as her husband, who was killed during his service in the army. Now, her grandson Luke is in Iraq, though she often forgets this. Meanwhile, Anne’s estranged daughter Alice is doing all she can to keep it together, sandwiched between her increasingly forgetful mother and her always-in-danger son.

For the most part, The illuminations flits between Anne’s life in this drearily small apartment in which she lives and Luke’s more muscular adventures in Iraq. It is the latter set of sequences that really bring this novel to life, and highlight the affect this ridiculous war has not only on the people who fight it, but the people who live it vicariously at home in Britain. It’s strange that there are still so few good novels about our time in both Iraq and Afghanistan (The yellow birds springs to mind for the Americans, and I am struggling to think of any Australian equivalent), but here O’Hagan has written something horrifyingly believable.

Luke himself is only in his late 20s, but already cynical and world-weary, seeing the war as an endless conflict between drugged-up young men brought up on FPSs and Red Bull, brought to a foreign land to fight an enemy they don’t understand, with young men who can’t even read, brought up on rhetoric they don’t understand. It’s a thoroughly depressing point of view, and though Luke tries to make sense of it with his direct superior, Major Scullion, he only finds a man broken by the repetition of conflicts stretching back decades.

When Luke does eventually return to Scotland, ruined by one particular experience, it is up to his mother and grandmother to help him reintegrate into a nation that is still struggling to work out what it wants—this is, after all, post-referendum Scotland, reaching out for an identity in modern Britain.

The illuminations reminds us that we are still at war, that there are still young men and women in far-flung places fighting for something that no one can really remember anymore.

If Andrew O’Hagan is concerned with what happens when young Britons go out into the world, Sunjeev Sahota is far more interested in seeing what happens when young Indians come to Britain. The year of the runaways, as the title suggests, takes a year in the life of three young Indian men—and one young Indian-English woman—who run away from their lives in an attempt to make a better one. It’s a surprisingly timely novel, considering the recent mass movements of people from war-torn places into Europe.

What is good about this novel is that Sahota doesn’t try to draw too large a bow when choosing his three leads. There are, of course , similarities between them, but this is not a novel using characters to make a point. Each of them is given the space to be their own person.

Both Avtar and Randeep have made their way to England on legitimate visas, but have no intention of keeping to the rules. Despite being accepted into a college, Avtar is there to make enough money to send back home to his family, where his father, a former government worker, is mentally ill. Randeep, too, is here to make money, on a spousal visa via a marriage that looks real only on paper. Both are exploited as cheap labour, and the struggles they go through to keep their heads above water are touching, considering what they went through to get where they are. (Sound familiar?)

Tochi, though is an illegal immigrant. Fleeing northern India, where his family was massacred by extremists, he moved to the West on the promise of a safe—and rich—life. (Sound familiar?) Of course, once he gets there, it becomes clear he has been sold a lie, particularly since he comes from a lower caste. The old prejudices are still alive and well in England.

The other main character, Narinder, is Randeep’s visa wife. Raised a devout Sikh in England, her story acts as a counterbalance to these three tales of migration. Still a runaway, she has married Randeep to help him come to England . Her narrative opens a completely new line of questioning, as we watch her move from being a quiet, devoted religious young woman to something a bit more human. It is here that one of the driving forces of the novel comes to the fore, exploring what happens to individual when they have been cut off from their communities and forced to flee to another. How do people cope with this upheaval?

The year of the runaways might, at first blush, sound a like a ripped-from-the-headlines novel, but Sahota is smart enough, and good enough, to make sure that these characters are not ciphers, but real people. By bringing a human face to problems that so often seem intangible, he show his gifts as an emerging chronicler of Britain and its people.

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The Yellow Birds (2012) – Kevin POWERS

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.

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