Title: The Yellow Birds
Author: Kevin Powers
A novel by Virginian writer Kevin Powers, Iraq war veteran, and recently nominated for the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry for Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.
In many ways The Yellow Birds is conventional--a war-buddy story where the older main character (‘Bartle', 21) promises to protect the younger (‘Murph’, 18), only to have the younger character die. Structurally: the narrator, reminiscing, tells us within the first chapter that ‘Murph’ died in the war. The rest of the book leads up to the events surrounding Murph’s death. Chapters jump from the narrator’s return home to Virginia, to episodes from the Iraqi battlefield. Everything one expects from a war novel is present: the (straight) male camaraderie, the no-nonesense sergeant, the visit to a brothel while on leave, the suicide attempt upon arriving home. Virginia is painted in broad brush-strokes, a nostalgised homeland washed over with the narrator’s unspecific descriptions. Suburban horror is missing; the narrator’s Virginia might as well be out of the 1950s.
That said, the descriptions of battles are stomach-churning. The loss of life pointless. The preening of the officers pointless. The palpable desire from the soldiers not to shoot, not to kill.
One final thing: that dustjacket. Completely wrong. Makes The Yellow Birds come across as a magical realist airport-read text. The font, the image--painfully miscast. And since when is Damian Lewis lending his name to dustjackets?