(This is the January 2013 selection for the Literature and War Readalong, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, where you will find Caroline's review, links to other participants' reviews, and other reader comments.)
First off, I must say I know absolutely nothing about The Yellow Birds other than what I've read between its covers. I know nothing about Kevin Powers, aside from the brief author blurb on the inner dustcover sleeve. I have read no reviews, have heard no buzz, although I know it was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012 (only because a silver medallion on the front cover told me so). And who was deemed to have written a better novel? I must check that out.
That said, I do believe it is an inspired work of art by a writer who is on the cusp of grasping the breadth of his considerable writing powers. Aside from some forcing of metaphors very early in the novel, which drove me to distraction, every word and emotion and image after that felt true to me; and in the clearest sense, resoundingly true.
Let me tell you, I am no one to judge a former soldier's novel about war, but I felt the book came alive in the midst of the section "August 2005--Richmond, Virginia," when Bartle leaves home and is wandering along the banks of the river, images of Murph in his head pressing down from all sides. He starts one huge run-on sentence and the emotions run raw, deep, visceral. The effect on me? I felt like cheering, because finally, Bartle was feeling something true.
The hopping back and forth in time, the images kaleidoscoping here and there and scrambled and all out of order did not bother me because that's how the memory of severe trauma goes, I know. Survivor's guilt, I know. Promises left broken, in shards of fragmented glass, I know. I've never been a soldier, but I know that much, that little bit.
I felt a special kinship with Bartle once he began to "come clean," as he himself would have described it. I was so present, in those moments, I could have wept.
That's all I have to say for the moment.
I don't know if Kevin Powers has other books in him, but I hope so. I know he's a poet (the book blurb again), but I hope he'll write more fiction.
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