Book Review: The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds: A Novel
Kevin Powers

What it Was Like

Like the narrator of his first novel, Kevin Powers fought in Iraq as a very young man. In an interview with the newspaper The Guardian he explains, “One of the reasons I wrote this book was the idea that people kept saying ‘What was it like over there?’ It seemed that it was not an information-based problem. There was lots of information around. But what people really wanted was to know what it felt like, physically, emotionally and psychologically. So that’s why I wrote it.”

“Perhaps that’s how it was: a field full of hyacinth. It was not like that when we stormed the building, not like that four days after Malik died. The green grasses that waved in the breeze were burned by fire and the summer sun. The festival of people on the market street with their long white shifts and loud voices were gone. Some of them were lying dead in the courtyards of the city or in its lace of alleys. The rest walked or rode in sluggish caravans, on foot or in orange and white jalopies, in mule drawn carts or in huddled groups of twos or threes, women and men, the old and the young, the whole and the wounded. All the life of Al Tafar left in a drab parade out of the city.”

A finalist for the 2012 National Book Award, The Yellow Birds, was honored with The Guardian’s First Book Award in 2012 and named as one of The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s ten favorite books of that year. In The Observer, writer Dave Eggers said “Powers is a poet first, so the book is spare, incredibly precise, unimprovable. And it’s easily the saddest book I’ve read in many years. But sad in an important way.”

“I have stopped worrying about those inches to the left and right of my head, the three miles an hour difference that would have put us directly over an IED. It never happened. I didn’t die. Murph did. And, though I wasn’t there when it happened, I believe unswervingly that when Murph died, the dirty knives that stabbed him were addressed ‘To whom it may concern.’ Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying. Not even being ordinary. Still, I like to think there was a ghost of compassion in me then, and that if I had a chance to see those hyacinths, I would have noticed.”

Sad indeed. Early on we know that the first person narrator, Private Bartles, is shattered and tortured by the war, that he does terrible things, that his buddy Murph is killed and that he made a terrible promise he could not keep. And we know that it will get worse.

Admirers of Tim O'Brien’s Vietnam piece, The Things They Carried, will want to read The Yellow Birds.

David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library