My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers has been hailed as the “All Quiet on the Western Front” for modern times. It is the story of a young man who ventures off to war (Iraq), charged with a duty and a promise to look out for his best mate, and return him to his mother safely – a promise he should never have made and had no hope of keeping.
Reviewers have been so resoundingly positive about this novel that I am slightly nervous in adding my own thoughts lest they be construed as blasphemous. Because something about the flow did not resonate with me. The story is told in a series of stilted interior monologues, which although incredibly powerful in and of themselves, seem to dominate to such a degree that the plot (*NAEW) is entirely subjugated.
Furthermore, the monologues are disjointed; shifting back and forth in time such that a person has to work unnecessarily hard to keep up. As a rule, I wouldn’t normally mind this because I think this is an accurate reflection of how we actually experience our lives – perhaps even more so when suffering from PTSD as John Bartle clearly is. Life is lived backwards and around and around circles as much as it is a linear experience.
And certainly, Powers can write. You won’t get any dispute from me on that point. The depictions of the anxiety of war, the pure state of constant stress and alertness that these young men live under, are truly harrowing. There is an honesty, brutality, but above all, a genuine power for observation, that shines through Powers’ writing.
But for all of that, something in the authenticity of John Bartle’s voice just didn’t ring true for me. Perhaps, cumulatively, the effort involved in following the various threads and piecing them together in their correct time sphere created a distance between us. But whatever it was, I just didn’t connect with him. I empathised, but I wasn’t always convinced he was telling me, or himself, the truth. But maybe that’s the point. John Bartle himself does say
“I felt like I was looking at a lie. But I didn’t mind. The world makes liars of us all.”
I sometimes wonder if an essay by Kevin Powers wouldn’t have been equally or even more powerful. Certainly, Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction title “War” had a profound impact on my view of the Iraq war. Or perhaps all that is needed is a second reading and a little more faith next time?
*NAEW = not an evil word