Tuesday 23 January 2018

Veteran's tale of war horrifies with its beauty

Hilary A White

The Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers

Sceptre, £20.30

It's hardly an original premise: war veteran returns from active duty (Iraq, in this case), struggles to rejoin society and turns to the written word to externalise his thoughts through fiction. The moving of minds as well as cash sometimes turn out to be positive spin offs of this process.

Mellow Virginian Kevin Powers fits snugly into this mould with his much talked about debut The Yellow Birds. It should have no problem sharing shelf space with the likes of Orwell's Homage To Catalonia or Anthony Swofford's Jarhead while sounding out in its own special register too.

Having come home from two years in that "shitty little war", Powers, an amateur poet and wordsmith, spilled out his experiences of being a machine gunner in Al Tafar and Mosul on to paper. There, weighty introspection and artistic flourish have emulsified to rich effect.

He insists this is a novel, a work of fiction located within a very real setting, but there are moments where the air is just too taut and pungent to be anything other than tidied-up extracts of diary confessional. Even if only half of the situations or sensations he depicts are of this nature, then the 31-year-old Powers really has seen some of the worst of humanity.

"The War tried to kill us in the spring," he begins, with a plain-speaking menace that paints the war as something actively predatory. The story warps back and forward between settings (Al Tafar in the Ninevah Province, home in Richmond, various military bases) over three years. Bartle is the 21-year-old soldier who makes a promise to the mother of Murphy to keep an eye out for the 18-year-old fellow serviceman.

Leading their company is the glass-chewing sergeant Sterling. Although Sterling is, essentially, an empowered barbarian who epitomises the moral decay of war, Bartle comes to idolise Sterling's resilience to nightmares. ("I hated the way I needed him to jar me into action even when they were trying to kill me ... I hated the way I loved him when I inched up out of the terror and returned fire, seeing him shooting too, smiling the whole time.")

The war is persistently, but never doggedly, meditated on amid some of the most beautifully rendered stream of consciousness and elemental scene-setting you will read this year. At one stage, finding himself numbing to the horror, Bartle reasons that "war is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely I will not."

Nothing is skimped on. Filth, savagery and desolation skirt the backdrop or bludgeon their way into Bartle's foreground. Rats and dogs nibble on corpses. The stink of sewage and death hums off the page. When he is back home, the demons of trauma, displacement and Murphy's horrific demise are every bit as jarring. The young man, his hands clasping for a rifle that isn't there, finds it very difficult to operate in an environment free of the routine and instruction of "Mother Army".

The Yellow Birds (a traditional marching cadence) is peculiarly apolitical for the most part -- all this cognitive processing leaves little time for geopolitical whys or wherefores. There is potent commentary on the corrupting factor of war as well as the inadequacy of servicemen's reintegration to the homeland, but any elegantly portrayed fatigue is a result of Bartle's direct orbit.

That it horrifies with beauty and numbs by way of sensuality is Powers' big achievement. When the dust of Iraq has fully settled and teenagers are being whisked out to other illegitimate confrontations, America will always have The Yellow Birds, chiming calmly but clearly on their behalf.

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