Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds

This is a tremendous novel about the corrosive impact of war on human beings. It evokes powerfully the random death generator that war is. The way it destroys mens’ hearts, bodies and, worst of all, their souls. How it separates them from others and ultimately from themselves. Unable to relate to normal life, becoming a disengaged spectator on their own existence. The novel jumps forward and back in time as the central character tries to rationalise what has happened to him and to his buddy. Trying to find reason in the irrational and ultimately random environment that is war.

The book is not a political critique of US engagement in Iraq. It is a meditation on the nature of war. A closely observed picture of how the fragile bodies of men are broken by bullets and bombs but also how their personalities and identities are broken by random brutality.

The writing is exceptional which even in the most grim of circumstances never fails to recognise beauty. Even where it describes death and the rank environment of war it does so with a poetic force which reinforces rather than deflects the focus on the squalid and degraded.

Despite its sustained focus on the awfulness of  war it somehow manages to leave you feeling uplifted. At the heart of the novel is an act of kindness. It may have been misplaced, it may have had unforeseen consequences, it might have been flawed in many ways but the intent was pure. Even in the most extreme circumstances and at the end of physical endurance something is done which is a selfless act intended to reduce the impact of a death.

The book has been compared with “All Quiet on the Western Front” and the writer with Hemmingway. Time will tell but this is a book well worth reading and I would recommend it whole heartedly. This should be required reading for those that send people to war.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers – Published by Sceptre 2012