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The Yellow Birds

A war novel lives or dies by its narrator. In the audiobook version of Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds, Holter Graham does a superb job of giving voice to Private John Bartle, a young soldier with an old soul who describes the surreal details of rooftop and orchard combat in Iraq and the flayed state of his psyche after he returns home. As the novel shuttles among scenes in Iraq, Fort Dix, Virginia and Germany, the adjustments Graham makes to the emotional timbre of his voice, along with location- and year-stamped chapter announcements, help the listener follow the novel's shrapnel perspective.

Powers embeds plenty of recounted dialogue and landscape description into Bartle's first-person monologue. Graham does equally well performing the lines of the naïve young enlistees and their caustically realistic sergeant. The author's MFA in poetry underpins Bartle's minimally syllabled yet resonant descriptions of terrain and combat; Graham reads those passages in a gritty declarative rhythm that keeps the lyricism safely under the razor wire. Most crucially, Graham's performance of Bartle's postwar chapters is a powerfully calibrated alloy of revivification and disassociation.

The Yellow Birds burns with the authenticity of experience, from drops of Tabasco in a sleepy soldier's eyes and the omnipresence of dust to talismanic bargains with fate. Unavoidably, there are sensory details of combat and death that are difficult to hear, but Powers's judiciously beautiful prose and Graham's fully committed performance combine to create a testimony of war that illuminates more than it strafes. --Holloway McCandless, blogger at Litagogo: A Guide to Free Literary Podcasts