Bound together since basic training when their tough-as-nails Sergeant ordered Bartle to watch over Murphy, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, Murphy becomes increasingly unmoored from the world around him and Bartle takes impossible actions.
*May Contain Spoilers*
Kevin Powers writes a poetic, yet haunting, tale of one military member's experience with the Iraq war in his novel, The Yellow Birds. Private Bartle made a promise, one that he should never have made, to keep another member alive during their deployment. He failed. His failure haunts him as survivor's guilt shreds his life along with his suffering from PTSD.
John Bartle is represented as being both bad and good. His assignment as narrator is not easily trusted, as Bartle struggles with remembering what happened in Iraq. As a soldier, Bartle adapted to the war. He killed when he had to, almost automatically, while his mind sometimes questioned what his body was doing. Bartle's memory of Iraq is beautifully described with glints of danger, fear, and horror. The blunt force of what happened in Iraq is positioned carefully in contrast with the beauty of Powers' prose. It almost attacks the reader with its horrific qualities.
Readers will undoubtedly form an emotional attachment to Bartle. As the chapters switch from past to present, readers see what toll the war takes on Bartle's mind, body, and sense of right and wrong. His PTSD is readily apparent and begs for release. It's heartbreaking and soul shattering in its disparity.
From the start of the novel, readers know that Private Murphy will die and that Bartle will break his promise to protect him. Though what exactly happened is held back until near the end of the story. Bartle shares the story in pieces, reminiscent of the chalk marks he made on a concrete wall that represented each memory resurfacing. The non-linear timeline creates a poignant chaos of different disasters all culminating in one broken promise. Though the prose is beautiful and the writing style poetic, this novel is not for the faint of heart. It's a struggle to read and to understand, though incredibly moving and powerful in its complexity.
Rating: 3.5/5 Cups