When We Were Birds, by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo
Originally published 2022
Literary, Fantasy/Magical Realism, Romance
Setting: a fictional Trinidad
[CWs: death, violence]
When We Were Birds is an evocative page-turner of a debut that blends love story, ghost tale, crime thriller and mystery novel to paint a landscape of an island rich with both lush foliage and spirituality, as well as a sinister underbelly of darkness.
The story follows two characters, Darwin and Yejide. Darwin, a young Rastafari, is driven by hard times to take a job as a gravedigger, despite his mother's objection and resolution to cast him out of the house for violating their faith - 'Rasta don't deal with the dead'. Darwin gradually settles into the routine of the cemetery and his new life away from his mother and among the other rough-around-the-edges gravediggers until he begins to notice strange happenings - disturbances at the grave sights, a lone, spectral figure after hours, someone who feels familiar yet unknown on the periphery. Yejide is first introduced to us a child - sitting on her grandmother's lap and hearing the tale of the corbeaux - black vultures who 'stand at the border between the living and the dead', charged with the sacred responsibility of consuming of the island's deceased and releasing their souls. We meet adult Yejide in the midst of a tempestuous storm as her mother Petronella lies dying. Petronella is a cold and distant figure in her daughter's life with a mysterious, burdensome 'gift' that is passed down through the women of the family. This matrilineal inheritance binds the women to the very fabric and nature of the island, bringing both knowing and suffering as Yejide becomes its newest bearer with the passing of her mother. Darwin and Yejide's fates become intertwined, both with each other and with the invisible forces of the island's deceased; a deep connection is formed between them - both romantic and prophetic. The attraction feels raw, brimming with intensity and driven by something spiritually primordial, but also feels highly relatable to anyone who has loved through the author's ability to convey a strong sense of emotion and place:
'Before long everywhere turn green and the air feel cool, and the road open into another world. On one side is rock folds and moss-green trees and tiny springs trickle out of the cracks. On the other, lush valleys, and the golden glow of the afternoon sun and the big open sky. Is not like Darwin never see mountains before, not like he never see the world splay open in green and gold and fire and softness, but somehow here with her, driving in a silence that don't feel like silence, it hit different.' He keep his eyes on the view outside the window, reach towards the armrest in between their seats and catch hold of her hand. Her fingers stiffen, and fold themselves into his. He breathe in the cool air, feel the last rays on his face and close his eyes.'
As a fresh storm of colossal proportions begins to gather, with the cemetery at its eye, the lovers must fight malevolence to prevent themselves from being dragged to the depths.
Rendered through descriptions bursting with colour and written entirely in patois, it is easy to step through a portal straight into the Caribbean and get lost within the pages. Of the two stories I found Darwin's most compelling; while arguably Yejide's story was the more interesting of the two, it left me wanting slightly more answers and I wanted to dive deeper into the magic and folklore surrounding her, which remains fairly abstract throughout the novel. As Yejide and Darwin's stories collided I felt propelled towards the conclusion and only wished I could stay in this world a little longer, playing voyeur to their relationship, despite the death lurking in the shadows.