Sunday, 18 May 2014

Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers | Sister Sundays

Book: The Yellow Birds

Author: Kevin Powers

Pages: 226 (around 125 pages on my iPad)

I Read It On: My iPad

I Read It In: 3 hours

Plot Summary: A novel written by a veteran of the war in Iraq, The Yellow Birds is the harrowing story of two young soldiers trying to stay alive.

"The war tried to kill us in the spring." So begins this powerful account of friendship and loss. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. Bound together since basic training when Bartle makes a promise to bring Murphy safely home, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for.

In the endless days that follow, the two young soldiers do everything to protect each other from the forces that press in on every side: the insurgents, physical fatigue, and the mental stress that comes from constant danger. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes actions he could never have imagined. 

What I Liked: The Yellow Birds is an unflinching and heartbreaking look at war and what it does to the men on the frontlines. It is the kind of book that packs a lot of punch, rips you apart and stays with you even after you finish reading it. It makes you sad and angry; it also makes you feel so powerless. 

At one level, The Yellow Birds is a war story- of an actual military operation and how a unit navigates the challenges that such an operation brings. At another, more interesting level, this is a story about how different people process war. It is about innocence lost and heroism and friendship and being able to retain your sense of humanity in the face of war and death. 

It is the story of two young Privates- Murphy (who is 18) and Bart (who is 21) and their Sarge, Sterling (who is 24 but comes across as significantly older and world weary) as their unit tries to navigate the unfamiliar terrain and insurgents in a Iraqi village. There are three primary characters in this book and, to me, the three of them represented clear archetypes of what war does to men. 

First, we have Murphy, the innocent. Murphy is 18 and does not know what to expect from this war or how to handle it. He is the character through whose eyes we truly process and recognise the cold horror of war and the soul-numbing process of fighting through a rain of bullets and shells from an unseen enemy. Murphy's lack of readiness makes him unravel fairly rapidly as the unit moves through the region, taking on insurgents, inflicting and suffering loses. 

Bartle or Bart, as he is referred to in the book, is slightly more seasoned and experienced in the art of war then Murphy. He is our narrator and we see Murphy, Sterling and the events in the story through his slightly world weary eyes. Though only 21, Bart has been there and back (in a manner of speaking) and has acquired this practiced distancing from the actual loss of life that every soldier encounters. He is able to emotionally distance himself, to a large extent, and, thereby, deal with the very things that makes Murphy fall apart. Bart, unwittingly, makes a promise to Murphy's mom to bring her boy back home safe and it is this promise that leads to the events that turn Bart's life even more upside-down than it already is. 

And then, we have Sterling, who, in my opinion, is the most heroic, tragic, heartbreaking character in this book. Sterling, who is the poster boy for the war hero. He is brave, decorated, has done several tours of duty and is able to stay sharp and focused in conflict situations. However, what makes Sterling special, in my opinion, is how beneath all his heroic demeanour, razor-sharp focus and general bad-ass-ness, there is, essentially, a broken man. A man who sees the futility of this war and is numbed by it, almost as much as Murphy, but who goes through the motions of combat (with what seems like relative ease), looks out for his unit and gets the job done. Sterling, to me, is what a true casualty of war looks like- you take someone good, strong and heroic and you put them in a situation where they thrive (because of said qualities) but that same situation eventually eats away at their soul and they are not allowed the time to even process this because a war needs to be fought.  

What I Didn't Like: Nothing much, really, except that the writing style in a few places (especially, at the beginning) is a bit tedious. It gets better as the book progresses. 

Would You Like It?: Yes, but you need to be in a slightly positive frame of mind, so that you can get your head out of the dark places that this book takes you to. This is a great book and I highly recommend it. 

Good to know: This book is about to be made into a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch,  Tye Sheridan, and Will Poulter. I think Cumberbatch will play Sterling (or so I hope) and I am really, really looking forward to see how he interprets him. Much excited! 

Rating: 4/5  

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