Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers

While I hate to crib from a blurb that is smack dab on the cover of the book that I am reviewing, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is the All Quiet on the Western Front for the modern era. It is cheap and unoriginal, but it really is true. I don’t think you will find a more honest, heartfelt and passionate look at this modern war in any fictional realm, whether in books, movies or television. Its purity and directness literally seep out of page with prose that is somehow direct and very poetic. There isn’t anything fancy going on within these slim, 226 pages. You won’t find any kind of political stance (although the reader may do so, depending on their reaction to the gruesome depictions of combat) or interesting storytelling techniques. This is a hard, brutal book about the horrors of war, and how one person must deal with the promises he can’t keep and the consequences that come with it. Powers is writing from experience here. He was a machine gunner in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and it shows in how well he describes Army life. Like I said before, there is nothing extra thrown into this novel, so everything he mentions is very important and intricate to the stories loose plot. And while this book is at points very uncomfortable and sad, it brings with it a lasting power that will stick with you long after reading it, even with its short page count. The story is told from the perspective of Private Bartle, who, during basic training, befriends Private Murphy, a younger, less experienced solider who seems ripe to be broken through the hardships of war. When they ship out to Al Tafar, Iraq, he promises Murphy’s mom to keep him safe, a promise that he knows he cannot keep. Over the next 200 pages, we switch perspectives from the fight in Iraq, to the discharge of Bartle, who is drifting through life, which, to him, is better than focusing on the horrors he witnessed during combat. Powers has a knack for describing things in great, poetic detail, making a description of a man trying to put his insides back in him just as beautiful as he describes his home in Richmond, Virginia. All this leads to a terrible discovery near the end, in what is the books most graphic passage, and the mistake Bartle makes, causing him to take the fall for something he had almost no involvement in. while it is a very sad book in the end, you can tell by every sentence that it comes from Powers’ heart. And to tell you the truth, I would not be surprised if he didn’t write another book. Everything in him seems to be on the page here, and I’m afraid whatever comes out of him next will be wholly untruthful and of no use. If that is the case, Powers’ can rest easy knowing he produced a book that can stand tall next to Remarque’s opus. Powers’ has left his mark on the world, and it is a powerful one.
Rating: 5/5

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