In the High Peaks

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

(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.


  1. I felt about it a lot like you. It's beautifully written and I think, if it's a promise of what lies ahead, he could be a great writer.
    I liked Bartle and the story about loss and grief but I felt it was far less about war that about friendship. But it's a captivating book, one I've read pretty much in one or two sittings and I liked the atmopshere and mood he created. I was just not sure if it wasn't too lyrical for a book on war?

    1. I must reread your discussion of The Yellow Birds, because from what I glimpsed, there was a lot you had to say about the novel.

      I appreciate discussing a novel like this so much because I value all the different viewpoints.

      I do think The Yellow Birds was truly a war novel and not one about the traditional ideas we usually hold about friendship. I think Powers did an extraordinary job of how the chaos and craziness of war causes people to become incredibly close and dependent on each other because to endure such trauma alone without sharing it would mean death, as it was meant for Murph, once he pulled away from Bartle and the rest of the company.

      It's that soldier's comradeship made plain. As Bartle admits to himself, if it weren't for being thrown together in Iraq, he wouldn't be friends with Murph. They were too different, in a "normal" world or society. Yet, endure severe trauma together, and you are bonded for life, in a way that only people who have endured such trauma can understand (or so many soldiers feel it, I think).

      I don't think it was too lyrical, because it was the way the author's sensibilities made it. Being lyrical was the way Bartle dealt with the horror and the absurdity--that was just his way.

      The forcing of metaphor, as I described it, was, I believe, a way for Bartle (and maybe Powers at some point) to deal with the enormity of the catastrophe of war. Focus on the birds, the orchard, etc.

      Anyhow, I feel I get it, as Powers tried to convey it.

      Thank you for choosing this book for all of us! I'm indebted, because I don't think I ever would have read it otherwise!