CBR5 Review #20: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Why I Read It: Because it’s being hailed as one of the best books of the last year.

My Rating: 4 stars

Summary: Before leaving for a tour in Iraq, 21-year old Private John Bartle makes a promise that he’ll keep his new friend, an idealistic 18-year-old soldier named Murph, safe. He does his best to keep his word as the two navigate the terrifying and bloody battlegrounds of the Iraq War, as they both struggle to maintain their sanity and, ultimately, survive.

My Review: This was a really difficult book to read. I tend to avoid books like this, actually, because they make me so sad and kind of make me sick to my stomach. War is hard to confront, and that’s actually why I forced myself to read it: the Iraq War is a defining aspect of my generation and the times we live in, and recognizing the sacrifice made by those who were/are fighting (and how lucky I am that I don’t have to be one of them) is important. This is an incredibly realistic, very graphic, and completely moving account of one man’s experience of the war–haunting and disturbing and completely stunning. Kevin Powers is an Iraq veteran and you can tell from the way he writes–it’s deeply personal and he transports the reader into that world.

The logical point of comparison is Tim O’Brien’s ouevre, and it’s a pretty accurate one. If you’ve read anything by him, you’ll know what The Yellow Birds is like. It is fiction, nominally, but there’s such truth behind the words and such power in the things both authors describe. The Things They Carried is the defining book of Vietnam, and I can definitely see The Yellow Birds occupying that title for the Iraq War.

Powers does an incredible job of capturing the horror of battle, the detachment from death, the trauma of loss. I was completely absorbed and yet I almost wanted to stop reading because the story is so heartbreaking and so stomach-turning. He is a truly brilliant writer, with some of the most poetic prose I’ve read, which actually has a kind of jarring effect when juxtaposed with the things he’s describing.

It’s a book that makes you think, and, like O’Brien’s work before him, Powers makes you face the grim realities of war head-on. It’s not a fun read, but it’s an important one.

Should You Read It: Yes–it’s clearly a modern classic and truly captures the horror of the Iraq War.


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