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When We Were Birds: A seductive, pleasurable experience

Book review: Nuala O’Connor finds Lloyd Banwo’s debut a tour de force of language and insight

When We Were Birds
Author: Ayanna Lloyd Banwo
ISBN-13: 978-0241502792
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Guideline Price: £14.99

This novel opens with a sequence that focuses on menacing birds – corbeaux, or black vultures, that have evolved from parrots – then quickly switches to a man starting work as a gravedigger, under a “dirty-clothes sky”.

If this sounds a little murky, readers need not be put off. Ayanna Lloyd Banwo paints her pulsing, believable – but fictional – Trinidad with light and intimacy. When We Were Birds is an immediately seductive, pleasurable experience because of the craft in the colloquial language – the story is told in Creole English – and a surefooted attention to detail. We meet odd and arresting characters and, added to all of this, rumbles of gentle humour and basic kindness are woven through the darker themes.

This is a dual narrative about Yejide, a young woman at odds with her dying mother, whose demise, and grief for her twin sister, is drowning out their house on Morne Marie. The second narrative thread concerns former Rastaman Darwin, the newly minted gravedigger, who has recently shaved off his dreadlocks and moved to the city of Port Angeles. These two do not know each other, but times are hard for both and, it seems, may yet get harder.

It is clear from Darwin’s uneasiness at the start of the novel – “life is always half in shadow” – that his transformation will be ongoing and fascinating to witness. We learn his mother is ashamed of him for taking the graveyard job, warning him, “Rasta don’t deal with the dead”, while also giving him her coconut bake to fill his belly on his journey to the city.

Yejide lives in a hilltop house, alive with still-bustling ancestors and a crowd of people unrelated to one another who co-exist in harmony. She is waiting for her crabby, distant mother, Petronella,  to pass on. “Since the day I make you, I start to die,” her mother tells her, setting the tone for their conflicted relationship. Petronella’s impending death causes ghostly visions, a stir-up of sour memories for Yejide, and an invasion of moths in the house.

Yejide’s status and responsibilities are changing, but it remains to be seen if she will embrace a prescribed life with her makeshift family, or carve a fresh path for herself. Along with the shadows cast for Darwin and Yejide by the corbeaux, the dead, the dying, and their disrupted maternal relationships, neither one knows who fathered them, and each remembers their father as just a shady penumbra from years past.

Lloyd Banwo has the same language- worship and wit as Jamaican-English writer Andrea Levy as well as  Jane Harris, author of Sugar Money. The magic realism in this novel calls to mind the writings of Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel. Here, though, the otherworldly elements are a natural blend into a life of myth, superstition and traditional practices, spliced with imaginative leaps.

The author handles the death-lore beautifully and makes believably transporting the trance-like sequences where characters feel presences, or have encounters with the dead.

The journey is a rich one, awash with evocative detail and pinpoint insights

Some readers may find the gentle pace unsatisfying, the slow build to the inevitable collision of Yejide and Darwin’s worlds, and the consequences of their meeting. But the journey is a rich one, awash with evocative detail and pinpoint insights into the risks of being individualistic enough to break from a planned-out life in order to discover the true self.

The narrative is alive with particulars, dotted with the flora and fauna of Trinidad – poui trees, red ixora, ti-marie bushes, agouti – and food is lovingly evoked: green figs, starch mango and kuchela relish all feature. Against all the flourishing life and tradition in the novel, problems multiply, and the corbeaux continue to circle menacingly above Fidelis Cemetery and Morne Marie.

Lloyd Banwo is good on fraught parental relationships, and the realities of grief and loss. Her narrative sweeps wider to include the vagaries of crime and poverty in big cities, where many people need a hustle just to survive. Later in the story, having set the ground well, she drives the action to thriller-like tension.

Ultimately, When We Were Birds, though largely interested in death and questions about a ghost world parallel to our own, focuses on the healing powers of both forgiveness and love, and the peace gained in unburdening ourselves of the shames we carry. The novel is a tour de force of language and insight, an accomplished and confident debut from Ayanna Lloyd Banwo.

Nuala O’Connor’s novel Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce (New Island) is the 2022 One Dublin One Book choice