Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find all at once that I have set out to read some of the most well regarded fiction on the Iraq. I thought Phil Klay’s Redeployment was a powerfully human depiction of the range of Americans caught up in the war, and I see Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk gentle satire as extraordinary, as works that might linger for a generation or two to give us a sense of what this moment was like.

I admire The Yellow Birds, but I think it’s a notch below those.

On the plus side, Kevin Powers has a real command over language. The opening lines are stunning: “The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Ninevah and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns…While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.”

I find all that gorgeous, and Powers keeps it up for most of the book. I simply don’t get tired of hearing his voice.

That said, though, I think the story underlying the book is a bit undercooked. The narrator has done something shameful during the war, but we don’t know what it is until very late in the book. As the action jumps back from during the conflict to after, that unspoken event serves as the axis around which everything else revolves. Even so, we get it foreshadowed or reflected upon more than we get it. It’s the irritant that spawns the pearl; eventually we get to see that pearl, but its origin is simply too shrouded. Powers teases us with it so long that its revealing comes as anti-climax, and it feels under-developed.

There’s a powerful story here, and I understand it has been optioned and cast as a major film, but it is perhaps too aware of itself as a serious work of literature. It is that, and it is serious and often powerful, but I think it would be even stronger if it were less concerned with its own art-ness and more willing to bring its characters and their history forward.

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