War and guilt with too many lyrical flourishes
FICTION: The Yellow Birds By Kevin Powers, Sceptre, 226pp. £14.99
WITHOUT REALLY KNOWING why, John Bartle joined up and saw active service in Iraq. His experiences of the horrors of war are quickly overshadowed by a far greater, more crippling remorse caused by his failure to protect a younger soldier. To do so was a rash, idealistic promise he had made to the boy’s anxious mother.
Bartle is tormented by his memories, vivid and fragmented, relentlessly suspended between the real and the imagined. “All I really know for sure is that no matter how long I live, and no matter how I spend that time, those scales aren’t ever coming level. Murphy’s always going to be 18, and he’s always going to be dead.”
The narrator returns home and, despite his many demons, is initially hailed as a hero before hard fact and the military police catch up with him.
The debut novel of the Virginia-born poet Kevin Powers is based on his tour of duty as a machinegunner in Iraq, and it evokes the surrealism of a conflict fought out in the sand and shadows of a desert. There is a compelling sense of place: “The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns . . . Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin . . . it cast a white shade on everything like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded.”
It suggests defiance, yet this is not a defiant work. Instead it is a personal account, in which the narrator makes clear that, for him, the war in Iraq was far less about a loss of innocence than about the loss of hope that really caused the death of his friend Murph (Daniel Murphy). That death, one the narrator did not actually witness but was involved in concealing, becomes far greater than the many he did see.
An overwhelming amount of prepublication praise from established writers has endorsed this impressively crafted, if cold and overrated, novel, exciting a level of expectation that is not quite fair to readers, never mind to Powers. No, it is not comparable to All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) – Powers is far too mannered for that. Nor does The Yellow Birds approach Tim O’Brien’s classic story The Things They Carried (1990).
Is The Yellow Birds being lauded because it is a work of art or, more mundanely, because it is the first US novel to emerge from the war in Iraq? There is a staccato quality to both the structure and the language that, far from adding an edginess to the narrative, leaves it too calculated an exercise to be genuinely moving, although the ending certainly achieves an emotional force born of intense reflection.
The prose moves between flat – and effective – description and other more literary sequences, such as “the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer” or “clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed”. Bartle the narrator at times does convince as a seriously damaged survivor trapped by a confusion of memory and nightmare. Frequently, though, the language becomes heightened and forced; Powers is not remembering, he is writing, and it shows. This stylistic patchiness is compounded by the time shifts, which are so neatly ordered as to confer an element of artifice. The material is so raw and powerful – as in a wonderful passage in which an old hermit figure tending a three-legged donkey helps the soldiers and in return is killed by them – that this book should be as good as the glowing endorsements testify. Several of the 11 short chapters could stand alone as stories in their own right, particularly the one where a young female medic weeps at the death of a soldier and is herself killed when a makeshift chapel is shelled. It is almost as if one doesn’t need to read on.
Admittedly there are weaknesses, such as an interlude in a church in Germany, in which the narrator meets a priest with whom he has an unconvincing conversation. This merely serves to prove that Powers, a serious, monotone writer with, as yet, apparently little feel for humour, is poor at dialogue.
It does no disservice to either Powers or his narrator to note that the true heart of this book is the dead friend, Murph. Early in the narrative, Bartle recalls the day that Murph received a goodbye letter from his girlfriend back home: “He had the letter folded in his lap . . .” Powers conveys the youngster’s disappointment as he gazes at the sky. The gesture is beautifully caught, but then Powers burdens it by continuing, “And yes, it was full of naivete and boyishness, but that is all right, because we were boys then”.
It has a hint of Hemingway that it does not need. Powers is at is best when he is natural, when he allows Bartle to be believable. The formal, more lyrical flourishes do jar. It is a shame because there is no disputing that Powers has a sharp eye for memorable observation.
The discovery of Murph’s body and the bizarre disposal of it ensure that The Yellow Birds gathers genuine narrative artistry in its closing sequences. War and guilt are tremendous themes. This may not be a great war novel, or even a great novel, impeded as it is by its structure, inconsistent narrative voice and lapses into overwriting, but when at its best, which is Powers at his most stylistically unselfconscious, it is very good indeed.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent