Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review: "The Yellow Birds"

"The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers
First published in 2012
226 pages
My rating: 2.75 out of 5
(image source)

This story of the early years of the Iraq war was the kind of book I knew I'd finish but wanted to be done with as quickly as possible. "The Yellow Birds" is a story told by a 21-year-old Army private who made a promise to an even younger private's mother that he would bring him home. Yeah, you can probably see where the plot was going...

"The Yellow Birds," written by an Iraq war veteran, is an amazing, heart-wrenching depiction of being young and in war. It makes you feel sick, thinking of 18-year-old soldiers -- kids, really -- and all the horrible things they have done and have witnessed and the fact that they have to come home and try to make peace with themselves. They're so young, so innocent, so naive when they head off to war. And sometimes -- more often than we'd like to think -- they're ravaged by guilt and grief when -- if -- they come home.

Many have probably said the book was "beautifully written," but I had a hard time with the writing style. I found it to be ostentatious and overly poetic. (In the author's defense, the book jacket proclaims he has won an award for his poetry.) It was the kind of book where you read a string of words that have a certain lilt to them, they flow together in a pleasing way. But then you try to process what you've just read and go, "Uhhh... what?" and realize that it was mostly nice-sounding nonsense. Also, I can't recall ever having to look up so many unknown words in a book before. Fricative? Semaphore? Solipsist?

While the story was so melancholy and sad, I felt it had the power of truth behind it, unlike some other war novels I've read by people who obviously have no idea what military life is like. This is not a book that will leave you feeling happy or hopeful -- just the opposite, in fact. I'm glad that books like this are written, because despite our yellow ribbons and care package campaigns I think we Americans all too often remain blissfully ignorant of what our soldiers are really experiencing "over there" in some faraway place, out of sight and out of mind. And while I support any novel that jars people to really see better the cost of our freedom... I didn't really care for this one.

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