In our August podcast, we talked about negative book reviews, when it’s worth writing one or why readers might be interested in reading one. I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot since I finished Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, because while it isn’t a bad book, it isn’t very good either. It’s thoughtful and lyrical and ambitious and finally unfulfilling.
You wouldn’t know it from the accolades it’s getting: blurbs from Colm Tóibín and Ann Patchett, a gushing review in the New York Times, and, most recently, a nomination for the National Book Award. As a war novel, it’s been compared to The Things They Carried and All Quiet on the Western Front.
Comparisons like these make me worry that some reviewers aren’t honestly responding to the novel in front of them; instead, they’re writing about the novel they want to see come out of our war in Iraq, something modern and important to stand beside the classics. For now, I’ll try to set aside my suspicions, which may be unfair, to focus on The Yellow Birds itself, which just doesn’t measure up to a lot of the praise it’s receiving elsewhere.
John Bartle is a veteran struggling to make sense of his experiences. He has a story to tell about losing his friend Murph and trying to keep a promise, but that story often seems secondary to his search for some redeeming profundity.
Even most of the rave reviews acknowledge that the prose in The Yellow Birds, though precise and beautiful at times, is often overwrought and distracting. In the middle of a firefight near a river, Bartle sets off on a meditation of “the waters of my youth.” His thoughts wander so widely that he at times appears to contradict himself unknowingly. In one early passage, Bartle decides “There were no bullets with my name on them… we didn’t have a time laid out for us, or a place,” only to say pages later that “our course was certain then, if unknown.”
Reflections on time and fate like these appear too frequently to give them any special gravity. Rather than building significance from the experience of war, they tend to disrupt the narrative, which progresses in fits and starts.
The emotional drive of the book comes from an impulsive promise Bartle makes to Murph’s mother to bring her son home alive. In the first chapter, we learn that Murph isn’t going to make it, but exactly what happens to him is a mystery that only gets teased out over the course of the next ten chapters.
The problem is half of those chapters take place after Bartle has left Iraq, and Murph is present in much of the book only as a memory. We see little sustained development of their friendship, and it never becomes clear how close they really are. When Murph pulls a photo of him and his girlfriend from his helmet, Bartle says “I didn’t remember Murph ever showing it to me. I wondered how we’d gone that long through the war without my having seen it.” I wondered the same thing, and I wondered if this relationship was what I was supposed to care about without seeing any alternatives.
In some ways, the most disappointing part about The Yellow Birds is that it does get better. The story picks up when we finally learn how Murph dies and what Bartle does. What happens is surprising, but withholding that action from readers for so long doesn’t make the reveal any more powerful. Foreshadowing brutality does little to build suspense in a novel about war. Instead, the withholding keeps us from the most important action in the story, the event that precipitates there being a story at all rather than merely a string of reflections.
To be fair, some of Bartle’s reflections are worth mulling over. “Eventually,” he explains while narrating his early days in basic training, “I had to learn that freedom is not the same thing as the absence of accountability.” It’s not clear when exactly he learns this, or whether this observation means more to him than any of his other realizations about war and life, but it meant more to me. Put it another way: Freedom is choosing your own consequences. That wisdom struck me as hard won by a character, a narrator, and a writer who’s known freedom and consequences.
It reminded me too that writers will always be constrained by choices, that no book will ever be everything we want it to be, and the prose here is always straining to be something more, to force terrible events towards significant conclusions. It even comes close sometimes, but in the end, The Yellow Birds offers too few events and too many conclusions to make a satisfying story.
[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]