Author: Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds follows two young soldiers in Al Tafar, Iraq, September of 2004, as they tread into the psychological and physical eruption of the war in Iraq. Daring sentences and pregnant paragraphs swell with prose that retracts tautly and then explodes. Powers is magnificent. With an opening sentence that stuns, Powers sums it up: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.”
December 2003, Fort Dix, New Jersey. In boot camp, John Bartle, 21, meets Daniel Murphy (just turned 18) when their team leader, Sergeant Sterling, commands Murphy to “get in Bartle’s back pocket and stay there.” Bartle tells Murph to get his gear and move into the barracks into his room, and to bring his stuff. Before they ship out for Al Tafar, the families come to say goodbye to their sons, and Mrs. Murphy asks John Bartle to promise that he will bring young Daniel Murphy back with him, home to her. Bartle doesn’t know what to say, so he agrees. Sergeant Sterling overhears and belts Bartle in the mouth, knocking him down, for promising Private Murphy’s mother that he would bring Bartle home. And so starts the nightmare of war and honor for all three of them.
Nothing prepares Bartle and Murph for the reality that they have been dropped into. As they begin to realize that they have are in hell, they also realize that Sergeant Sterling is insane. Or at least everything seems insane. As they fight to stay alive Murph starts to pull away, and drift. Bartle doesn’t know how to moor him back, for he is trying hard not to give up and die himself. There is no center, only fatigue, carnage, more fatigue and more carnage. When Murph wanders away and his mutilated and tortured body is discovered by Sterling and Bartle, they panic. Sterling decides to throw his body in the river, for there is no way they can allow Mrs. Murphy to see the intense and inhuman damage done to her young son.
What follows is exquisitely painful, as is the entire novel, for the impact of what Bartle and Sterling have down cause both of them to lose themselves. Powers, a veteran of Iraq himself, has created a masterpiece of a novel that dwells with every thought, every moment, every cause and effect that the war imposes on two young men, a career sergeant, and the families that wait for their sons to return – or not. Writing that devours the senses, cleaves into every moment of the torture of the Iraqian war, the fighting, the boredom, the fear, the heat, the immense loss of life creates a novel that will become a classic. Like most people, I followed the war reluctantly via newspaper and TV. Powers thrusts us into the lives of his characters so powerfully, with such exquisite prose, that the juxtaposition of writing against the horrors he portrays brings us right next to Murph, Bartle and Sterling. This coup de force reads as well as Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, and creates a modern inferno of feeling and thought entwined around prose that proves painful and cellular as we live the lives of all three characters and find ourselves, at the end, trying to make sense of both tragedy and horror.
Harrowing, real, relevant and simply heartbreaking, Powers has done the impossible – he has recreated a war that so many of us have distanced ourselves from and brought us to our knees. One of the best novels I have read in years and one that will surely win awards.
The Yellow Birds: A Novel is available for pre-order at Amazon.com
Ratings are based on a 5-star scale
Ratings are based on a 5-star scale
Review by Broad “A” – Ava
We received a copy of this title for our book review. All opinions are our own.
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