BookBrowse Reviews The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Yellow Birds

A Novel

by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Sep 2012, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2013, 256 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


This searing debut novel by an Iraq war vet shines light on the costs of war and has all the makings of a genre classic

Kevin Powers' first novel, The Yellow Birds, is a coming-of-age drama set during the Iraq War. The first-person account is narrated by John Bartle, an army private stationed in Al Tafar, Iraq, at the height of hostilities in September 2004. In basic training the 21-year-old Bartle is assigned to look after Private Daniel Murphy, then 17, promising both his sergeant and Murphy's mother that he would bring the young man home safely. We learn very early on that Bartle has failed to accomplish this goal, and feels some responsibility - and perhaps culpability - for Murphy's death. The narrative alternates between events leading up to Murphy's demise and Bartle's attempt to come to terms with it and with his military experiences in general after he is discharged back to his home in Virginia.

The Yellow Birds isn't a feel-good read. The title comes from an army call-and-response marching cadence:

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Landed on
My window sill

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His f***ing head

This should provide Powers' readers fair warning that what follows will be brutal and bloody; the "yellow bird" is a metaphor for the soldiers, which the war will inevitably destroy in one way or another. Nearly every page in the book's Iraq sections depicts a near-surreal scene of death and destruction. The author's writing is incredibly descriptive - an odd combination of violence and poetry (see Beyond the Book) that work in concert to paint a picture that is at once disturbing and beautiful.

I pushed my chest off the rooftop and crested the low wall, trying to scan the few acres of the world for which we were responsible. The squat buildings beyond the field undulated through the tinny green of my scope. Bodies were scattered about from the past four days of fighting in the open space between our positions and the rest of Al Tafar. They lay in the dust, broken and shattered and bent, their white shifts gone dark with blood. A few smoldered among the junipers and spare tufts of grass, and there was a heady mix of carbon and bolt oil and their bodies burning in the newly crisp air of morning.

Powers, an Iraq war vet, has said that while he didn't experience the exact events in the book himself, he was striving to portray an "emotional truth" behind what it's like to go to war - and, more important, to return from it. He has accomplished this magnificently well, giving vent to his character's pain and anger in a way that feels utterly honest and personal. Bartle talks about feeling like an outsider even in his hometown, afraid to meet friends because he doesn't want to them to ask, "Hey, how are you?" -

I'd answer "I feel like I'm being eaten from the inside out and I can't tell anyone what's going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I'll feel like I'm ungrateful or something. Or like I'll give away that I don't deserve anyone's gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I've done but everyone loves me for it and it's driving me crazy."

The raw violence and searing emotional content make reading this book an intense experience. I was profoundly affected by it, although "enjoy" is certainly not the word I'd use to describe my feelings for the book. There is no happy ending here, no light at the end of the tunnel, only images of shattered lives. And yet I do recommend the novel; I can't think of a book in my experience that has elicited such an overwhelmingly visceral reaction, and certainly none that have had such an enormous impact on my view of the effects of war. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime reading encounters that I am certain will remain a permanent part of my consciousness.

Shortlisted for the National Book Award, The Yellow Birds has been deservedly compared to war classics such as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Eric Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. In addition to simply being well-written, these books share a view of war that is unvarnished by the myth that battle is noble and that fighting for one's country is a glamorous undertaking. These books strip away the Hollywood hype and lead us one step closer to understanding the true nature and cost of conflict. Those seeking an answer to the question, "What's it like to go to war?" could do no better than to pick up a copy of The Yellow Birds.

To see Kevin Powers discuss his book, click on the video below:

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in November 2012, and has been updated for the April 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Kevin Powers, the Poet

One-Month Free Membership

Discover your next great read here

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Castle of Water
    Castle of Water
    by Dane Huckelbridge
    When a whopping 24 out of 27 readers give a book 4 or 5 stars, you know you have a winner on your ...
  • Book Jacket: Havana
    Havana
    by Mark Kurlansky
    History with flavor...culture with spice...language with gusto...it would be hard to find a better ...
  • Book Jacket: Temporary People
    Temporary People
    by Deepak Unnikrishnan
    In this powerful and innovative collection of 28 short stories, Deepak Unnikrishnan presents a ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Nest
by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

A funny and acutely perceptive debut about four siblings and the fate of their shared inheritance.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Manderley Forever
    by Tatiana de Rosnay

    Bestselling author Tatiana de Rosnay pays homage to Daphne du Maurier.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    No One Is Coming to Save Us
    by Stephanie Powell Watts

    One of Entertainment Weekly, Nylon and Elle's most anticipated books of 2017.
    Reader Reviews

Who Said...

Experience is not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

Y S M B, I'll S Y

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

 
Modal popup -