The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Winner of the 2012 Guardian First Book Award, ‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers is about two young soldiers from Virginia fighting in the Iraq war in 2004 on their first tour of duty in Al Tafar.  The story is told from the point of view of twenty-one year old Private John Bartle as he describes what happened to him and fellow soldier, Daniel Murphy, who we quickly learn will not make it home alive.   The chapters alternate between the war in Iraq and the events after Bartle’s homecoming as details slowly emerge of exactly what happened to them.

‘The Yellow Birds’ is not so much about “the big picture” of the Iraq war.  Instead, it focuses on the emotions and experiences of one soldier.  Powers himself is a veteran of the Iraq war who served for two years as a machine gunner in 2004-2005.  I don’t know how much of ‘The Yellow Birds’ draws directly on his own personal experiences but it is certainly an honest and brutal account of the chaos and absurdity of war.  Despite being set in a very specific place and time, the book is therefore, in many ways, timeless.  

The language is at times poetic, sparse, and raw and yet always remains understated and unsentimental.  The description of going into combat as being like the heart-stopping moment before a car collision is just one example of the brilliant imagery in this book.  While Powers doesn’t shy away from the nightmarish horrors of the war, the book never feels voyeuristic or sensationalist.  Both the physical and mental effects of the war are covered unflinchingly.  For me, the passages recounting Bartle’s struggle to readjust to life back at home were the most intense.  

The Yellow Birds’ is an exceptionally powerful book which manages to capture a wide spectrum of emotions in spite of its brevity.  It is even more remarkable that this is Powers’ first novel.  Essential reading for everyone.  


Filed under Books

9 responses to “The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

  1. So many moments in this book brought me to years. His writing is so beautiful and everything is so real. It’s definitely a close up look at the war that most of us never see. So glad to hear he won this award, he really deserves it.


  2. I have been wanting to read this, but sort of wondered if the book was as good as the hype (because sometimes it’s not). So you’ve convinced me – will get it soon…


  3. I have heard good things about this book before. It certainly sounds powerful.


  4. It seems like a heartbreaking book. I just recently got interested on the war – I admit it was after I watched Zero Dark Thirty – but cannot manage to read anything related. Too much pain, too many lives taken away. So, bravo for you for reading “The Yellow Birds”.


  5. fictionquest

    War, the Minotaur feasting on youth, (you said the protagonist is only twenty-one). The war in Iraq, Afganistan, Korea both World Wars and on and on, all demanded similar sacrifices. Thank you for the review I shall put the Yellow Birds on my ever growing ‘must read’ list


  6. Pingback: The Yellow Birds: A Novel Reviews | WWW.JUSTINFOHUB.COM

  7. Pingback: The 2013 End of Year Book Survey | A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

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