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When We Were Birds

"A spellbinding, bone-resonant story of love, death, ritual, ancestral legacies and the sweetness of healing set in a fictionalised Trinidadian city."

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LoveReading Says

LoveReading Says

Ayanna Lloyd Banwa’s When We Were Birds casts a soulful spell as it tells the interlocked stories of a young man, Darwin, who’s newly arrived in a Trinidadian city to work as a gravedigger, and Yejide, a young woman with ancestral gifts. At once gritty and soaringly mythic, it explores estrangement, death, grief, and the unbreakable bonds of lineage with haunting power.

The mythic mood is set by Yejide’s Granny Catherine telling her a magical story of “talking animals and a Great War” followed by the coming of a fierce storm. With the world ripped asunder by death, corbeaux carrion birds restore order through devouring the dead, performing “a sacred duty to stand at the border between the living and the dead”. This tale, told to her in childhood, remains with Yejide through her life. In the present day, when she dies in the family home outside the city of Port Angeles, Yejide’s mother leaves her daughter the ability to talk to the dead, positioning her between the living and the dead, like the corbeaux. Their strained relationship is poignantly portrayed, and framed in the raw truth of the cycle of life, motherhood and death: “Is the daughter who makes the mother an ancestor when she die”.

Meanwhile, Darwin arrives in Port Angeles to work as a gravedigger, against his mother’s wishes, against the Rastafarian code he was raised to follow, vaguely hopeful he might happen upon the father he’s never met. When he and Yejide encounter each other in the ancient graveyard, elemental forces are unleashed — storms of emotion and need, with luminous light and calm coming in its wake.

The air soft and clear and all the living and the dead settle themselves like an old lady in a rocker on her front porch settling her skirts” — this novel is blessed with writing that sears the soul. It’s a tale that unsettles before gathering you in, releasing, and healing. Magic.

Joanne Owen

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