The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, Sceptre, RRP£14.99, 240 pages
Soldiers John and Murph embark on a tour of duty in Iraq but only John returns. He takes to wandering the forests of his native Virginia, unable to forget the blood and sunlight of the desert, or the rash promise he made to Murph’s mother that he would bring her son home.
Kevin Powers served in the US Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and out of that experience he has forged a harrowing, enormously powerful first novel that recalls The Things They Carried (1990), Tim O’Brien’s fictional response to the Vietnam conflict.
The prose reflects the psychological effects of war, with sentences strung out in chains of chastened monosyllables (“the side of his face was gone and there was a lot of blood and it pooled around him in the dust”). But Powers’ writing is also attentive to nature and landscape, and he manages to entertain contradictory notions of beauty and horror. Wasn’t that Fitzgerald’s definition of genius?