Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

An astonishing work and one that will definitely become one of the "classic" novels written about the current Middle East conflict.  Kevin Powers' prose is lean, sparse, and raw, to the point of being almost poetic. A veteran of the war himself,  He has captured in this small volume the emotions of two young soldiers trying to stay alive while serving in Iraq.   The opening lines "The war tried to kill us in the spring." set the tone.

Twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy met in boot camp.  As they graduated, Bartle promised Murphy's mother that he would take care of his friend- a promise that haunts his every moment and movement as together they struggle to make sense of the carnage around them when they are dropped into Iraq.  The scenes are bloody, graphic, and often upsetting, portraying the reality of modern warfare.

They keep count of the casualties, convinced that if they can get past the number 1000 and still be alive, then they will survive; but as the days pass, and the number climbs higher, Murphy becomes increasingly morose and out of touch with reality.  He seems to have an insight that he will not return home alive. The ensuing mental devastation Bartle endures when Murphy is killed follows him home, where life does not get better and  we see the terrible phsychological and mental toll this war is taking -- and will continue to take -- on the young men and women serving in today's armed forces and on the families who wait at home.  Only someone who has served there could ever have given us such a deep and haunting picture of this horror in such a beautifully written story.

From the publisher: Kevin Powers joined the army at the age of 17, later serving a year as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq in 2004 and 2005. After his honorable discharge, he muddled through a series of jobs, but eventually quit the last of them and enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University, where he graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor's degree in English. He is currently a Michener Fellow in Poetry at the University of Texas at Austin, where he will receive his M.F.A. in 2012.

Yellow Birds is a finalist in the 2013 Maine Readers' Choice Award (for books published in 2012).  The winner will be announced in October.

My thanks to Little Brown and Company for making a copy available to me as a member of the judging panel.

Title: The Yellow Birds
Author: Kevin Powers
Publisher: Little Brown and Company (2012), First Edition
Genre: fiction
Subject: psychological impact of war
Setting: Iraq
Source: publisher
Why did I read this book now? It is a finalist for the Maine Readers' Choice Award


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