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. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. 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. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn’t care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
For the most part, I enjoy being out of step with the latest releases. I tend to avoid books that have just come out, books that are the next must-read. (My neighbour has just lent me Life of Pi &, thirteen years after its Booker win, I might finally be ready.) But there are times when this strategy, of waiting, of trying to follow your own path, comes to seem strangely flawed. Times when you encounter a book that is as beautiful as it is powerful and all you want to do is talk about it. Times, in short, like this.
The Yellow Birds is poetic, exquisitely precise and full of metaphor that dazzles as it balances on that risky line between startling connection and overblown collapse. It’s a novel about the Iraq war, or at least about one man’s experience of that war and, just as importantly, his return home. Jumping between two timeframes, one in Nineveh Province in Iraq in late 2004 & the other in Germany and Virginia in 2005, Powers explores the friendship between 21-year-old Private John Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Daniel Murphy, and Bartle’s naive promise to Murph’s mother that he will bring him back safely to her.
Powers himself is a veteran of the war, having served as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. His experience tells in his description of strange mix of mundanity and adrenalin that the war evokes, in the distancing and ambivalence that allows someone to carry on in that environment. “Nothing seemed more natural than seeing someone getting killed,” he writes. “I needed to continue. And to continue, I had to see the world with clear eyes, to focus on the essential. We only pay attention to rare things, and death was not rare.”
There are always paths from one book to the next, and often I feel like I’m following multiple trails at once. Like Johanna Skibsrud, Kevin Powers is also a poet, and thinking of Skibsrud’s compelling portrayal of the legacy of the Vietnam War to the children of its veterans in The Sentimentalists was one of the paths that led me to The Yellow Birds. Another was Powers’s own poetry collection Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, which I’d read and liked, though not loved. A third was reading the biography of photojournalist Lynsey Addario, and thinking about how very little I actually know about a war that has become almost background noise to the last decade.
And the interesting thing about that is, why don’t I know? I’ve read and watched enough news, but that simply skims the surface. I have friends who have served as medics in Iraq, there are service families at school. It’s just not something that I have ever asked about in depth. Because, as Kevin Powers is quoted as saying on the back of The Yellow Birds, the question he was asked more than any other was, ‘What was it like over there?’ His implied response being, how do you answer a question like that without writing a novel?
But where next on this path? I hadn’t heard of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk until I read reviews of The Yellow Birds. Or perhaps this book of short stories by Iraqi Hassan Blasim? Or, back to Vietnam? Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke has been on the shelf for a very long time. Has anyone else wandered this trail?