Book Reviews

Book Review: 'The Yellow Birds'

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Alan Cheuse reviews Kevin Powers' first novel The Yellow Birds, which is based on his real life experience serving in Iraq.


Writer Kevin Powers enlisted in the army at age 17 and served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He now lives in Austin, Texas, where he's been studying poetry at the University of Texas. And he's just published his first book, a novel called "The Yellow Birds." Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: How to tell a true war story? That question, once posed by Tim O'Brien, comes to mind when you read "The Yellow Birds." Kevin Powers chooses to tell his story by throwing sequential narrative to the Iraqi desert winds. This moody, petulant, often darkly beautiful and shell-shocked account of a young recruit on the ground in Iraq, moves us back and forth between the war and the main character, machine gunner John Bartle's return to his Southern country home.

As Bartle tells the story of his tour of duty, we swing back and forth between bursts of gunfire taking out Iraqi insurgents to bursts of lyrical prose, language usually best given over to meditation that delivers to the reader a deep sense of the emotions engendered by war. Powers writes beautifully about light, about the keening of Iraqi women in mourning around their campfires. Wind whips up through the jaws nearby, he writes, and courses over the creek bed.

And I can hear it then. I was not sure if it really came from the women around the campfires, if they pulled their hair crying in mourning or not. But I heard it and even now it seems wrong not to listen.Powers himself keens about the panoply of odors in the streets of Tal Afar in Nineveh Province. About death - the death of enemy soldiers, the death of a comrade, the fear of his own demise as mortars fall all around him. How to tell a true war story if you're more a poet than a novelist? Tell it as a poet would. Tell it as Kevin Powers does. Tell it as a poem.

BLOCK: That's Alan Cheuse reviewing the new novel, "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers.

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