Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (Sceptre 2012)
Kevin Powers served in the US Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and this novel draws on that experience. It’s a story about combat told by someone who was there. It needs to be approached with respect. And I did. I was repelled by some callous and/or confused anti-Islamic imagery in the first paragraph (‘The war tried to kill us in the spring … While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.’). But I read on.
The anti-Islam thing was clearly not deliberate. The narrative follows a small group of soldiers in Iraq – really just three characters. They do vile things, but they’re not triumphalist about it: this is what soldiers have to do, and they are pretty much as numb to the deaths of their comrades as to the enemies and the innocent bystanders they kill. There are flashbacks to home in rural Virginia. A terrible fate for one of them is foreshadowed. There’s a nasty scene in a brothel, a colonel who does what the narrator calls a ‘half-assed Patton imitation’, some clueless embedded journalists.
I had trouble believing any of it. I don’t for a moment think Powers is misrepresenting things. Certainly, there’s a fierce rejection of the sort of crypto-glamour of something like The Hurt Locker (I mean the movie – I haven’t read the book it draws on). I’m pretty sure he tackled some material that was unimaginably hard to face, and I admire him greatly for that. But nothing came alive for me, everything felt painfully constructed. I stopped reading at about page 90 when an embedded journalist was being a complete idiot.
So The Yellow Birds may be all the things that the distinguished writers quoted on its back cover say it is: ‘inexplicably beautiful and utterly, urgently necessary’, ‘born from experience and rendered with compassion and intelligence’, written ‘with a fierce and exact concentration and sense of truth’. It may, as one of them proclaims, be the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab Wars. Please don’t take my word against the combined judgement of Ann Patchett, Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibín. Alice Sebold and more. As far as I read, I thought it was pretty good first novel on a very important subject, and hope Kevin Powers has a great writing career ahead of him.