Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-07-30
- Reviewer: Staff
This moving debut from Powers (a former Army machine gunner) is a study of combat, guilt, and friendship forged under fire. Pvt. John Bartle, 21, and Pvt. Daniel Murphy, 18, meet at Fort Dix, N.J., where Bartle is assigned to watch over Murphy. The duo is deployed to Iraq, and the novel alternates between the men’s war zone experiences and Bartle’s life after returning home. Early on, it emerges that Murphy has been killed; Bartle is haunted by guilt, and the details of Murphy’s death surface slowly. Powers writes gripping battle scenes, and his portrait of male friendship, while cheerless, is deeply felt. As a poet, the author’s prose is ambitious, which sets his treatment of the theme apart—as in this musing from Bartle: “though it’s hard to get close to saying what the heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of those parentheses which were the beginning and end of my war.” The sparse scene where Bartle finally recounts Murphy’s fate is masterful and Powers’s style and story are haunting. (Sept.)
The unfathomable cost of war
The sparse lyricism of The Yellow Birds elevates that most essential and dissembled aspect of warfare—the individual human spirit—to its rightful place on the dais of our conscience. If Kevin Powers had given us only the title, its allusive origin and the first thousand words of this novel, that would have been enough for a timeless contribution. And yet he goes on, wringing from this trope every last drop of imagination.
The novel is the first-person account of Private John Bartleby, alternating between his tour in Iraq and the time just before and just after. Ultimately Bartleby must reconcile these three disparate realities and come to terms with the self who has traversed this dynamic moral landscape.
Powers, who served in Iraq before studying English at Virginia Commonwealth University, is palpably vivid with his language, efficient, even if he occasionally favors a weak image—this isn’t a flawless book. And yet the blemishes serve as a testament to the overall power of his prose, which trades readily in perfect phrases, underscoring the effect of his soaring minimalism.
Read The Yellow Birds and hope: for the lives of our men and women in service, for the lives of those whom they fight and for the grace of further gifts from this budding master craftsman.