Bullet’s eye view of war
The Yellow Birds
By Kevin Powers Sceptre, 240pp, $26.99
THE first line of The Yellow Birds, the debut novel of US Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers, filled me with nervous dread: ‘‘ The war tried to kill us in the spring as grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed.’’
He’s trying too hard, I thought. He’s giving agency to an occurrence. What if the whole book is like this?
War doesn’t try to kill anyone. Nobody seems able to give a credible account of the reasons behind the US invasion of Iraq, but it clearly wasn’t a conscious decision on behalf of the event itself. Make the war a character, but don’t expect it to shoulder the blame.
Then there’s the physical book itself, a hardcover with an opening note claiming this uncorrected proof is one of 100 copies only, with the two zeroes in 100 added by hand. Just what does The Yellow Birds think it is?
All in all, it’s a bloody good job that Powers’s debut is such a fantastic piece of writing. Otherwise, there would really be trouble.
The novel is shaped as a story told by US Army private John Bartle about his friendship with private Daniel Murphy, whom he has been sworn by Murphy’s mother to protect. But Murphy’s death has been foretold by the soldiers’ NCO, Sergeant Sterling, who knows everything about men and war.
‘‘ I hated him,’’ Bartle says of Sterling. I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination. But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary, how I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me, how I felt like a coward until he screamed into my