The Yellow Birds is brilliantly observed and deeply affecting: at once a freshly imagined story about a soldier’s coming of age, a harrowing tale about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield in Iraq, and a philosophical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory … Glimpses of ordinary life — a hyacinth garden, a swallow tracing the shape of an alley, an orchard on the edge of the city — alternate with scenes of horror that feel like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell … In conveying to the reader just how terribly young his heroes are, Mr. Powers gives us a visceral sense of the arcs their lives will trace and their bone-weary yearning to ‘return to ordinary.’ He somehow manages to write about the effect the war has on them — and, in Bartle’s case, its psychological aftermath — with enormous emotional precision.
...as compact and powerful as a footlocker full of ammo … The novel moves, fitfully, through Virginia and Iraq and Germany and New Jersey and Kentucky, from 2003 to 2009. Recalling the war, Bartle says, is ‘like putting a puzzle together from behind: the shapes familiar, the picture quickly fading, the muted tan of the cardboard backing a tease at wholeness and completion.’ This serves the story…[as] the fractured structure replicates the book’s themes. Like a chase scene made up of sentences that run on and on and ultimately leave readers breathless, or like a concert description that stops and starts, that swings and sways, that makes us stamp our feet and clap our hands — the nonlinear design of Powers’s novel is a beautifully brutal example of style matching content. War destroys.
The Yellow Birds is a rich chronicle of mendacity: men lie to each other and to themselves; ‘memory’ itself, the narrator observes, is half imagined … The Yellow Birds...achieves its most surprising and authentically obscene moments in a different register altogether. The book revives the World War I tradition that the late Paul Fussell called ‘war pastoral,’ a mode practiced by Owen’s soldier-poet contemporaries (Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden, among others), who exposed the old lie by transplanting the pastoral imagery of the English poetic tradition to the wasted soil of the trenches … Powers’s brutal lyricism feels fresh because it recalls a mode so decisively eclipsed by the high-octane hyperrealism of so much contemporary writing about war. It is this tenacious lyric voice that sets his novel, heavy though it is with war’s silencing pain and shame, apart.