In the old house on a hill, where the city meets the rainforest, Yejide’s mother is dying. She leaves behind a legacy that now passes to Yejide: one St. Bernard woman in every generation has the power to shepherd the city’s souls into the afterlife. But after years of suffering her mother’s neglect and bitterness, Yejide is looking for a way out.
Raised in the countryside by a devout Rastafarian mother, Darwin has always abided by the religious commandment not to interact with death. He has never been to a funeral, much less seen a dead body. But when the only job he can find is grave digging, he must betray the life his mother built for him in order to provide for them both. Newly shorn of his dreadlocks and his past, and determined to prove himself, Darwin finds himself adrift in a city electric with possibility and danger.
Yejide and Darwin will meet inside the gates of Fidelis, an ancient and sprawling cemetery, where the dead lie uneasy in their graves and a reckoning with fate beckons them both. A masterwork of lush imagination and exuberant storytelling, When We Were Birds is a spellbinding and hopeful novel about inheritance, loss, and love’s seismic power to heal.
Every once in awhile, a book comes along that truly leaves me speechless. This is one of those books. The writing, much in the rich dialect of Trinidad, is unlike anything I’ve experienced. I found myself reading aloud just to hear the beautiful sound of the words.
While the expected meeting of Yejide and Darwin doesn’t happen until halfway through the book, the chapters leading to this event build a world inhabited by both families that is as real as the fluttery moths surrounding Yejide’s mother as she passes. As real as Darwin’s shorn locs and as bitter as his mother’s disappointment. Once the two meet, prepare yourself for a whirlwind. You will not be able to put this book down until you read the final word.
I was reminded of one of my favorite books, A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds, which also tells the story of a young woman who can commune with the dead and the man who helps restore her faith. That book is one I recommend constantly; When We Were Birds will be added to that list.
Named a Most Anticipated Book by Time, Harper’s Bazaar, The Observer, Real Simple, Buzzfeed, Essence, Nylon, Good Housekeeping, Apartment Therapy Business Insider, NBC, Bustle, LitHub, BookRiot, Ms. Magazine, and more…
“Mythic and captivating… Banwo roots the reader in [Trinidad’s] traditions and rituals, in the sights and sounds and colors and smells of fruit vendors, fish vendors, street preachers and schoolchildren. In the glorious matriarchy by which lineage is upheld. The result is a depiction of ordinary life that’s full and breathtaking.”—New York Times Book Review
“[A] masterly debut novel. It announces an important new voice in fiction, at once grounded and mythic in its scope and carried by an incantatory prose style that recalls Arundhati Roy. . . Lloyd Banwo’s literary gift lies in her capacity to transfigure [grief] – to conjure a cosmic landscape where the living coexist among the dead.”—The Observer (Top 10 Debut Novel of 2022)
“A thoroughly original and emotionally rich examination of love, grief and inheritance… When We Were Birds is full of life . . .The scenes it hosts are packed with drama, colour and tension, particularly in her gripping finale . . Her novel takes flight and soars.”—The Economist
“When We Were Birds is an ode to the idea that broken traditions can lead to beautiful new beginnings.”—Time Magazine
“[A] spellbinding novel . . The poetic prose in Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel captivates from the start . . .When We Were Birds is a unique love story whose magical setting in Trinidad takes center stage.”—Real Simple
“Lloyd Banwo conjures an aching sexual energy, places the lovers in deliciously paced jeopardy and takes the tale to an agreeably thundery climax . . .Lloyd Banwo has written a love letter for Trinidad, to remind all of us that yes, love is still very, very nice indeed.”—The Guardian