As a work of fiction, The Yellow Birds comes close in spirit to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which memorably evoked the sad, futile cult of destruction that was the Vietnam War. Kevin Powers' 226-page story hinges on a spell in similarly benighted Iraq, where the author was deployed as a machine- gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar in 2004 and 2005.
But The Yellow Birds somehow cuts deeper than O'Brien's classic work. That doesn't mean it's necessarily better, they are both works of genius. It's just that Powers' poetic and philosophical approach more heavily informs his (nearly always) thrilling narrative.
The story is told in flash-back - and somehow 'flash-back' is a particular appropriate usage in this instance - by 30-year old veteran, John Bartle. Bartle, who enlisted, recalls his traumatic year spent as a callow 21-year-old on combat duty in Iraq. He had been teamed up with 18-year old soldier Daniel Murphy, known as Murph practically throughout the whole tale.
Murph is a sensitive soul, and Bartle feels responsible for him. He made a rash promise to Murph's mother back at the departure ceremony in the USA that he would look after the younger fellow.
Bartle's imaginative, nuanced account of his experiences is particularly striking, and his thoughful responses made this reader stop in his tracks, think about war and human nature and the whole damn thing.
Then there is Sergeant Sterling who veers between intelligent hyper-efficiency and slowly-creeping psychosis. Singing unintelligibly to himself, he scatters salt along the route as the platoon sneaks out to do battle in the eerie dawn light. Yeah, that kind of guy.
So, Bartle. lives to tell the tale, about himself, about Murphy, about Sterling, about Iraq. With striking perception, he teases out the implications of what happened, the 'what ifs' of what didn't. At least he is able to articulate the collateral damage to his soul, but it's small mercy. Sterling cannot do this, and, blind drunk, turns particularly nasty in a Rhineland bordello, en route back to the USA.
Even if he never wrote another novel or short story, The Yellow Birds is guaranteed to win Powers a deserved reputation in the years ahead. This debut novel is a deeply sensitive, poetic work, from a writer who is also a poet. Published in paperback by Sceptre, The Yellow Birds won the Guardian First Book Award in 2012.