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Kevin Powers: empathy is an imaginative act

So says Kevin Powers in an interview at the back of Yellow Birds.

I have taught the First and Second World War poets to teenagers for many years and and have never tired of how masterfully they use language to convey the complexity of war. Reading Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers felt like a continuation of that tradition: a deeply lyrical novel (Powers is also a poet) which conveys what Powers calls ‘the cartography of one man’s consciousness’, this time in the context of Iraq, one of our contemporary wars.

His chapters alternate between the narrator’s postings in Al Tafar, Nineveh Pronvince, Iraq in 2004 and his time at home in Richmond Virginia in 2005.  I was struck by this powerful juxtaposition between the the intensity of being at war in a foreign land and  the long, quiet days of being at home, haunted by memories of what Bartle has experienced.  Much of  a soldier’s suffering must come from this disjointed way of life, by not being able to match up the seams of his life.  And those haunting memories, they are perhaps the worst of all.  Bartle reflects, ‘half of memory is imagination anyway’, and as any good writer knows, imagination  cuts deeper than fact.

Most moving is the gradual revelation of what happened to his friend, Murph and the responsibility he feels for his life and his death. He had promised his mother to keep him safe.  The depiction of Murph unravelling is one of the most shocking and poetically beautiful in the novel and although he is seen as the one who has lost his mind, the reader cannot help but think that perhaps his is the more human reaction than that of the soldiers who held it together – he did not numb himself to the experience of war, he stared at it head on, he felt it, and it undid him.   ‘…he walked clothed in nothing but the soft wattage of the streetlights, his form seemingly blinking as he passed from darkness into wan and flickering circles of light, then back into darkness…’ (p197).

It is a hard read but a humanising one and a reminder that fiction is sometimes the best (the only?) way to convey our most extreme human experiences.