A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers: a disappointing second novel
Review: Author’s attempts to widen the lens make for an overwrought narrative
Kevin Powers: Virginian author’s first book powerfully depicted war through one soldier’s voice. Photograph: Kelly Powers
A Shout in the Ruins
Lazy critics aside, reviews with lots of quotes from the book usually mean one of two things – a novel whose prose captivates or one where the writing is so frustratingly obscure that the only way to showcase it is to give examples. Kevin Powers’ award-winning and critically acclaimed debut novel The Yellow Birds is firmly in the first category. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic gave plenty of column inches to the visceral language that made clear the lengths soldiers must go to in order to survive a war.
While the first-person narrator of The Yellow Birds brought immediacy to the conflict in Iraq, A Shout in the Ruins uses an omniscient voice to tell the tale of various individuals caught up in an earlier conflict, the American Civil War.
It is not a good tool for Powers, who evidently lacks the restraint needed for such a device. This second novel is heavy with convoluted sentences and deus-ex storylines that leave little time for character development. More frustratingly, the author’s obvious talent for writing is buried. Powers’ debut won the Guardian First Book Award and a poetry collection from 2014 was shortlisted for both the TS Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize. In his new book, the sometimes excellent period detail sinks into the rest of the overwrought narrative.
The two main storylines connect the destructive legacy of slavery to the recent past. In 1860s Virginia, the action takes place around Beauvais Plantation. Two slaves – Rawls and Nurse – are the most vivid characters, but it is hard to care about their desperate situations when the omniscient voice flits so irregularly in and out of their lives. Other underdeveloped characters include the mercenary landowner Levallois, his neighbour Bob Reid and Reid’s daughter Emily, whose strange outlook initially promises to have overtones of Steinbeck’s malicious women but who ultimately remains as murky and incomprehensible as the rest of the book.
The second narrative sees a man in his 90s, George Stetson, travelling in 1950s America to trace his roots. Tangential subplots also relate the interior thoughts of various soldiers, looters, a diner hostess and an officer in charge of overseeing reconstruction in the union.
While many authors have used the omniscient voice successfully to tell tales of war and slavery – Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins, and Edward P Jones’ The Known World come to mind – there is an awkwardness to Powers’ attempts to do likewise. Some of it comes from the seemingly random switching of perspectives mid scene or dialogue that takes the reader out of an already disjointed story.
Elsewhere an inauthentic formal register is to blame. A trader describes a young mute boy who has come under his care: “Eventually Spanish Jim realised to call him dumb would not work as a corrective, because the child could not comprehend the ways he was deficient, or the profound degree of his deficiency.” Later, as he lays dying from a stab wound, poor Jim thinks the sound of his own voice sounds “like wind whistling over the water where the Cowpasture and Jackson Rivers met to make the James”. Meanwhile, Rawls the uneducated slave “listened to the terrible sound of Spanish Jim’s blood falling drop by drop into the scales of justice that would weigh his fate”.
When the narrative switches into the heads of a group, it can make little sense: “The men gathered in front of Greene’s Provision and Supply simultaneously exhaled the collective breath they’d been holding.” On the local men, who may or may not be contemplating Levallois’ role in recovering Rawls: “If anyone recalled that they had not asked for his help, it was not mentioned.”
Sentences often require multiple readings, and not in a good way: “The screams of patients barely reached them from the amputation tents, but reached them still.” Statements sound profound but mean little: “To realise that desire, unlike pain, was something that no one, black or white, would ever develop a resistance to while the sun still sat as centre of the heavens.” Even character descriptions, as with Nurse’s summary of Levallois, are dense and opaque: “An insignificant tooth in a gear that would continue turning whether one broke off or not.” A final zinger: “For a floor to truly be kept clean, the stomping of a child’s bare feet must dirty it first.”
In the preface to The Yellow Birds, Powers, a former soldier, says the book started as a way to answer the question he faced on returning from combat: what was war like? Although he noted there was no cohesive way to describe it because “war is only like itself” his debut novel nonetheless powerfully depicted the situation through one soldier’s voice. Ironically, the Virginian author’s attempts to widen the lens have resulted in a sloppy second book that will leave his army of fans disappointed.