Star rating - 10/10
We have been fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan for so long now that it's sometimes easy to become immune to the devastating effects that combat can have on those men and women directly involved in it. Newspaper headlines fail to grip as they should after such a long drawn out and hotly disputed conflict. And so it falls to other mediums to convey the vital messages that we must never forget. Kathryn Bigelow's astonishingly brilliant and fittingly garlanded film The Hurt Locker was one such vehicle. And another one, this time in the form of a novel, which is every bit as raw and powerful and urgent, comes in the form of Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds.
I have no doubt that Powers would not have been able to tell the story of John Bartle's devastating experiences in Iraq with such power and impact if the author had not himself fought in that place. As it is, his two year tour of duty in Mosul and Tal Afar as a machine gunner with the US army, tells on every page. Bartle befriends another young soldier, and rashly promises his mother to keep him safe, in a place which is anything but. Their relationship in battle is played out under the ever watchful, and sometimes brutal, hardened eye of their sergeant Sterling.
Powers is a tremendously effective writer, with no word out of place, no paragraph put in as filler, in this novel that speeds along in flashback to the war zone, and afterwards to Bartle's traumatic return home as a survivor. He is an extremely reluctant war hero however. On his return home to the airport he turns down the bartender's offer of free drinks 'I didn't want to smile and say thanks. Didn't want to pretend I'd done anything except survive.'
The brutalising effects of being involved in a war, both on the inhabitants whose homeland is occupied, and on the forces doing the occupying in a hostile land, are depicted in a crystal clear way through the experiences of this one soldier. The after care, or rather shocking lack of it, for returning fighters is also laid bare. The description of Bartle's inability to cope with a world he no longer understands, or can function in, but which he has to call home, is astounding.
This is truly the best novel I have read this year. It is accomplished, excellently written, and vitally important. And for a first novel, and for that matter for any novel, is a first rate piece of writing.Whatever your view of the war, I urge you to read it.