BOOK REVIEW: When We Were Birds, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Genre: Fiction with bits of fantasy
Pages: 277
Themes: Love, Death, Interlink between the dead and the living
Rating: ⭐ ⭐⭐

This was my first author read from the Caribbean and it was quite an adventure. I wrote a piece sometime back as my tagline and in it, I mentioned that to read is to let the author walk you through streets and voyage through an alternate universe. That is exactly what Banwo does in this debut book.

Ayanna writes her book in patois, which is the dialect used in Trinidad and Tobago and I must say, it took me a while to sink into her narrative but once I did, I could barely let go of the book until I was done with the last syllable on the last page. Most part of the book is set in Port Angeles, a city that was once full of life and opportunities as granny Catherine narrates to an infant Yejide.

I’m not one to read horrors or books that have an overwhelming theme of the dead and death, but Banwo’s writing doesn’t give the creeps. Darwin and Yejide meet rather supernaturally at Fidelis cemetery, where he works and has devoted himself to being a keeper of the gates. Yejide appears to Darwin as a storm in the middle of the cemetery and the first time they meet physically, the chemistry and energy between them was definitely not one to disregard. Of course, being the hopeless romantic and the black female version of cupid that I am, this was my favorite part of the book. The dreamy unfolding of the fondness between these two.

The Caribbean dialect and culture sure is one to fathom. Banwo captivates her readers with the native narrations of her protagonists and key characters in the book. Darwin’s story unfolds in his earlier years growing up with a single mother who has taught him all his life, that keeping his hair and the locks on his head, is a sign of devotion to God/Jah. Darwin breaks his oath and allegiance by taking up a job at Fidelis cemetery out of desperation to fend for his sick mother and her medical bills. He couldn’t defile himself by working with the dead while he was still a Rasta, one of the reasons why his mother cut off communication with him. His story does end well, incase you’re wondering.

Yejide on the other hand, cursed with the vision of knowing the exact day, manner and time a person would die and hearing voices of the dead taunting at her, is raised under the heirloom of the St Bernard women at Mon Marie which narration I think, is an ode to women and the power they possess. She comes from a lineage of women who’s history stems from birds that drifted as a result of a war and the corbeaux, now a part of the Mon Marie household were the birds that border between the living and the dead, more like what the St. Bernard women were gifted with.

The Mon Marie is a whole domiciliary ran by women from generations back, standing on the sacrifices of those that came before, to be what it is. This was one of the amazing themes that Banwo so beautifully brought out. Yejide didn’t have the best relationship with her mother as she struggled to be noticed by her. The first time she has an actual conversation with her mother, Petronella, is after Petronella dies. Yejide has to help her mother cross over to the afterlife by whispering and singing all these affirmations to her, during a traditional procession by the St Bernard women. This particular scene was a marvel as Banwo intricately intertwines the themes of love, anger, regret and forgiveness.

Banwo will definitely take you on an adventure to the quiet Island of Trinidad and Tobago as her fictional characters come to life with each flip of the page. Conversations between the boys at the Fidelis cemetery about the dead and the afterlife, fears and joys at the Mon Marie household of the St Bernard women and their lovers will definitely have you gripped to the book.

I’d recommend this book to anyone seeking to experience the culture, dialect and the cross section between death and life in one burst of narratives and experiences of the characters in the Caribbean.


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