This is a book about war. A first novel, it has been met with acclaim and won the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, as well as the 2012 Guardian First Book Award. But ignore all the accolades and read it just for what it is because it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read and will become one of the great books about war.
The Yellow Birds is about the US occupation of Iraq, written from the point of view of a young soldier, John Bartle. It centres around a single, tragic incident in a small village involving him, his brutal sergeant and another vulnerable soldier, Murph, and then the resultant psychological damage that John Bartle has to deal with when he returns home. The book does not try to describe the war itself, it serves to bear witness to the sensitivity of the soldiers involved and the horrific decimation of human life. The style is detached and non-sensational. It is not for the faint-hearted but everything it describes has happened in war before and will again.
Powers himself spent time in Iraq as a US soldier, and this reflects in the tiny details (such as the flowers growing in a field) he includes when describing war – whatever war is, since it seems so senseless by the time you have finished reading this book. It is written in a lyrical style that brings beauty to the horrors and yet brings them alive in front of your eyes. I have already gone back and reread parts of the book because of the sparse, perfect use of words and the rhythm of his sentences.
This is an important book, and I seldom describe books as that. I think people who glorify war should be made to read it, or youngsters who are filled with a misinformed sense of nationalism. War all so pointless after all and so damaging on those involved in it. I haven’t stopped thinking about the book since I read it.