The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers

“…the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on.”

It’s not too difficult to compare reading this to another of the great literary works. All is Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind. War and Peace is another.

There are few works out there that engage readers with the reality that is war.

The suffering, violence, and fear. The novel opens with a brilliant passage that is stark in its imagery.

An image that relates to us Summer, Autumn, not Winter but Spring. There is dust, wind-swept paths, bodies, cities, and towns. “It made love and spread through fire.”

From the range of words alone I was absorbed by the imagery presented – but of course, the passage ended with “war is only like itself”.

So I had no clue what I was agape at, I just knew as a debut novel, I was in for something special.

The author, Kevin Powers, like his protagonist was a veteran of the Iraq war. It brings forth a sort of truth – a relevance to our time that puts it alongside the classic literary works that were relevant for theirs.

The narrator follows the story of the twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and the eighteen-year-old  Private Murphey. Incredibly young, they are plunged into a war they are not prepared for. From high school teachers to officers, they are used to listening in life. Without purpose, they fit right in and survive by following orders.

Driven by external forces, a fearful discipline, not self-discipline. There is little room in their platoon for characterisation beyond their seargeant and each other. Everyone else is either far away, dead, or going to die.

Left to their devices, and largely their own thoughts – The Yellow Birds reads like something broken emotionally mixed with a little philosophy.

Its message is poignant. It will drop you in the war, and you will feel like you’re in the war.

It will finish and leave you feeling bereft.

If in modern texts there was a must read – this is the one.



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