The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: Battle scars...
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, out now in hardback (Sceptre, £14.99)
Slavery Inc. by Lydia Cacho, out now in paperback (Portobello, £14.99)
The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have had plenty of non-fiction books written about them, but the fiction has taken a little longer to trickle out into the world. There have now been a few novels based in current Middle East war zones, but none has dealt with the topic as viscerally yet lyrically as The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. This is Powers’ first novel and the writer has drawn heavily on his own experiences in the US army serving in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
As Powers states in a short foreword, The Yellow Birds began as an attempt to answer the simple question: ‘What was it like over there?’ He immediately found that task impossible, stating that ‘if there is any true thing in this world it is that war is only like itself’.
The Yellow Birds is a haunting, brutal documentation of the situation in Iraq, as the novel’s narrator John Bartle negotiates the madness of war alongside best buddy Murph, the two of them struggling to stay alive and sane under the dual pressures of enemy fire and nihilistic anger.
Bartle does survive but Murph doesn’t, and much of The Yellow Birds deals with the aftermath of war, the now-familiar inability to readjust into ‘normal’ society after the extreme circumstances and indoctrination.
Also, there are questions about Murph’s death that both Bartle and his lunatic superior, Sergeant Sterling, have to - but refuse to - answer. Powers is now a Michener Fellow in Poetry at the University of Texas and he displays a fine poetic ability to give even the most harrowing or mundane events a deep, resonant power, lifting the prose to almost hypnotic levels at times.
Considering that this is a first book, there is a remarkable confidence and ambition on display, and you never doubt that Powers is in complete command of his material, from the first page to the last, breathtaking scene.
Equally as powerful in its own way is Slavery Inc. by Lydia Cacho. Subtitled The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking, it is an extraordinary exposé of the extent of sex trafficking across the globe in the 21st century. The author is a campaigning journalist from Mexico, where she has experienced threats, torture and even imprisonment in connection with her work.
Slavery Inc. is a hugely impressive and immaculately researched piece of work, Cacho speaking to people on the ground, both victims and perpetrators, as well as doing some sterling work in uncovering the links between governments, organised crime, drugs, guns, money-laundering and the illegal trade in women and children.
From Turkey to Argentina to Cambodia and most points in between, an estimated 175 countries are implicated in this horrific business, and Cacho has put her own life at risk to reveal the brutal truth.
All of this would make for profoundly depressing reading if it weren’t for Cacho’s skill as a journalist and the conclusion of the book, where she suggests a number of possible measures that might improve the situation in future. A beautiful example of optimism in the face of staggering criminality and cruelty.
And another thing…
Never ones to miss a trick, supermarkets are moving into ebooks. Tesco has just bought digital book platform Mobcast (co-founded by bestselling author Andy McNab) for £4.5m, while Sainsbury’s recently took a majority share in social network ebook retailer Anobii.
For the Kindle - and free
Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore (1869)
Allegedly the favourite book of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, this is part historical romance, part rollicking adventure story – all set in the characterful moorland backdrop of 17th-century Exmoor. John Ridd is caught between a rock and a hard place, desperate to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of the notorious Doone dynasty, but in love with the beautiful Lorna Doone, herself on the brink of being forced into an odious marriage. Ridd helps Lorna escape – and all hell is let loose. It’s old-fashioned but still excites, as Blackmore effectively uses dialect and strong descriptive prose to build atmosphere. www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17460
Words: Jenny Parrott