Vivid portrayal of war evokes spirit of Hemingway

The Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers

Sceptre, £14.99

Kindle: $13.82

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

Kevin Powers’ stark and compelling debut novel draws heavily on the two years he spent waging war as a US Army machine gunner in some of Iraq’s nastiest corners.

The Yellow Birds tells the story, in a strident first-person narrative, of John Bartle, a 21-year-old Virginian. On his first day in the army he befriends a boyish innocent named Daniel Murphy who quickly becomes his sidekick and, because of a casual promise made to the boy’s mother, his responsibility. But neither of them is prepared for the horrors of a war that makes no sense but leaves a deep and abiding mark. It’s not just the things they see and do, it’s what they become. This is a place where atrocities earn decorations but well-meant lies are punished hard. And overshadowing everything is Sergeant Sterling, a man who has strayed beyond broken into an almost perfect soldierly state. A psychotic angel, he is the ultimate figure of love and hate, protecting and tormenting and driving them ever on, even as the edge approaches.

Like all war fiction, The Yellow Birds attempts to consider two battles being fought, with the internal conflict, the one that struggles to comprehend and justify such horror and to find some way of living with all the shattered pieces, being the far more compelling.

Staggered chapters play with time to focus the plot and create a mystery of sorts, and the prose, at its best, is clean and measured, evoking Hemingway in its descriptive detachment and lack of sentimentality. Yet there are parts too that feel affected: the philosophic pauses, the run-on stream of consciousness sentences that occasionally hint at the all-too-gaudy colours of a creative writing classroom. Thankfully, though, such missteps don’t detract from the book’s more remarkable elements. This is a novel strong on authenticity, vivid in setting its scenes and its portrayal of violence. The dialogue has a raw, musical edge, and the author allows his characters to develop in unforced fashion to achieve an enviable wholeness. Bartle is the perfect narrator, surviving a certain state of disconnection, but observant, too, and aware of what lies beneath the skin of things. Murph is a tragic, vulnerable figure; Sterling, monstrous but ultimately pitiful. Skirting stereotype they are skilfully drawn beyond the second dimension and made to live, and die.

In the canon of great American literature, war fiction holds an esteemed place because of how it reveals truths that history seems to miss. The best works question the nature of heroism and magnify the impact of those conflicts on the hearts and minds of particular generations.

The Yellow Birds is the first major novel to emerge from the war in Iraq. The dustjacket blurbs by such heavy-hitters as Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibín and Ann Patchett proclaim it worthy of a place alongside works like The Red Badge of Courage, A Farewell to Arms, The Naked and the Dead, Catch 22, and Slaughterhouse Five. Such hyperbole does a disservice to what is a fine and absorbing first novel from an exceptionally talented writer, surely among the year’s best offerings, but perhaps a step or two shy yet of greatness.

Vivid portrayal of war evokes spirit of Hemingway

By Billy O’Callaghan

The Yellow Birds

Kevin PowersSceptre, £14.99Kindle: $13.82

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

Kevin Powers’ stark and compelling debut novel draws heavily on the two years he spent waging war as a US Army machine gunner in some of Iraq’s nastiest corners.

The Yellow Birds tells the story, in a strident first-person narrative, of John Bartle, a 21-year-old Virginian. On his first day in the army he befriends a boyish innocent named Daniel Murphy who quickly becomes his sidekick and, because of a casual promise made to the boy’s mother, his responsibility. But neither of them is prepared for the horrors of a war that makes no sense but leaves a deep and abiding mark. It’s not just the things they see and do, it’s what they become. This is a place where atrocities earn decorations but well-meant lies are punished hard. And overshadowing everything is Sergeant Sterling, a man who has strayed beyond broken into an almost perfect soldierly state. A psychotic angel, he is the ultimate figure of love and hate, protecting and tormenting and driving them ever on, even as the edge approaches.

Like all war fiction, The Yellow Birds attempts to consider two battles being fought, with the internal conflict, the one that struggles to comprehend and justify such horror and to find some way of living with all the shattered pieces, being the far more compelling.

Staggered chapters play with time to focus the plot and create a mystery of sorts, and the prose, at its best, is clean and measured, evoking Hemingway in its descriptive detachment and lack of sentimentality. Yet there are parts too that feel affected: the philosophic pauses, the run-on stream of consciousness sentences that occasionally hint at the all-too-gaudy colours of a creative writing classroom. Thankfully, though, such missteps don’t detract from the book’s more remarkable elements. This is a novel strong on authenticity, vivid in setting its scenes and its portrayal of violence. The dialogue has a raw, musical edge, and the author allows his characters to develop in unforced fashion to achieve an enviable wholeness. Bartle is the perfect narrator, surviving  a certain state of disconnection, but observant, too, and aware of what lies beneath the skin of things. Murph is a tragic, vulnerable figure; Sterling, monstrous but ultimately pitiful. Skirting stereotype they are skilfully drawn beyond the second dimension and made to live, and die.

In the canon of great American literature, war fiction holds an esteemed place because of how it reveals truths that history seems to miss. The best works question the nature of heroism and magnify the impact of those conflicts on the hearts and minds of particular generations.

The Yellow Birds is the first major novel to emerge from the war in Iraq. The  dustjacket blurbs by such heavy-hitters as Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibín  and Ann Patchett  proclaim it worthy of a place alongside works like The Red Badge of Courage, A Farewell to Arms, The Naked and the Dead, Catch 22, and Slaughterhouse Five. Such hyperbole does a disservice to what is a fine and absorbing first novel from an exceptionally talented writer, surely among the year’s best offerings, but perhaps a step or two shy yet of greatness.

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