The Yellow Birds/Kevin Powers: Reflections

Saturday, August 2, 2014

It's a rare thing when a book of exquisite literary merit is also a national bestseller. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See is one current example. So is Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds.

I should have read Powers' astonishing book sooner—when it was nominated for the National Book Award, when it was named my own city's One Book, when the reviewers clearly couldn't find words, when my neighbor Jane quoted from an early page, when Serena said I should. But I am glad that I read this book on this week, when the wars of the world have sent a deep laceration through my heart, when the news (so terrible) has required me, at times, to look away. By the force of his language, by the intelligence of his structure, by the hallowing, intimate truths on every page, Powers does not allow us to look away. This war that he writes of, his Iraq, his losses, his guilt—this may be a novel, but those losses are real.

If nothing else you have ever read calculates, for you, the cost of war, this book will.

There are spare moments of beauty, too. And because we are all feeling whacked by the news, I share the most stunning here. Two soldiers, the key characters in this book, have been covertly watching a female medic. Our narrator tells us this:

And I thought it was this and not her beauty that brought Murph there over those long indistinguishable days. That place, those little tents at the top of the hill, the small area where she was; it might have been the last habitat for gentleness and kindness that we'd ever know. So it made sense to watch her softly sobbing in the open space of a dusty piece of ground. And I understood why he came and why I couldn't go, not just then at least, because one never knows if what one sees will disappear forever. So sure, Murph wanted to see something kind, he wanted to look at a beautiful girl, he wanted to find a place where compassion still happened, but that wasn't really it. He wanted to choose. He wanted to want. He wanted to replace the dullness growing inside him with anything else.


Serena said...

It is an amazing book, and I am so glad it was on your list of books to read. It is so deeply moving. Marlantes' Matterhorn is another harrowing novel -- this about Vietnam -- that took him 10 years to see published. But is a chunkster in comparison -- and I still think about it.

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