An Iraq war veteran, Kevin Powers had more material for his debut novel than most 31-year-olds. He talks here about the frontline between fact and fiction in his The Yellow Birds, which has been shortlisted for the Guardian first book award
The Yellow Birds – shortlisted last week for the Guardian first book award – landed in bookshops in September off the back of a wave of hype that began to build with the reports of Powers' lucrative deal with US publisher Little, Brown and crested with reviews comparing its author to – among others – Tim O'Brien, Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway. It tells the story of Private John Bartle, who grows up in smalltown Virginia, signs up to get out, and is shipped off to Iraq's Nineveh province to play his part in the US's 21st-century war theatre. Attempting to impose meaning on the conflict's senseless sprawl, Bartle fastens on a promise inadvertently given to the mother of his friend Murph – younger, softer, less robust – that he would "bring him home". It's a promise he can't keep.
The novel unfolds along two intercutting timelines: a superstitiously hopeful before, when Bartle and Murph hold their own against horror by deploying a kind of magical thinking in which "if we remained ordinary, we would not die", and a bleak and blasted after, in which Bartle, back in Virginia, must come to terms both with the guilt of losing Murph and the way his death reduced all their carefully cultivated shibboleths to so much dust.
Full review at The Guardian