Atmospheric, gripping, immersive and tender- When We Were Birds is a a debut novel you will not be able to shake.
Set in Port Angeles, a fictional place with the stark resemblance to Port of Spain, we meet Darwin who leaves the countryside behind to start a new life as a Grave Digger at the largest cemetery in Port Angeles. Darwin was raised in the country as a Rastafarian by his single mother. His mother is a staunched Rastafairan who believes that the dead must bury the dead- so her son becoming a Grave Digger goes against everything she believes and taught him. The Grave Digging job is the only available work Darwin could find, the only way for him to help out his mother who is ailing and is not able to be work. With a full shaved head, Darwin makes his way to Port Angeles to become a grave digger…. Warned by his mother that the city eats men alive- he is determined to prove her wrong…
And maybe this is what it mean to be a man. Doing the things you never think you would have to do, making hard choice when the only thing in front you is hard choices.
Yejide grew up listening to her Grandmother Catherine telling her stories about what life was before a warrior wandered into the forest. A forest that was so thick, lush and animals who could talk and lived together peaceable. When the warriors came, they brought war and the animals all disappeared…. Many turned into birds living on the edges of the forest of Morne Marie. Yejide is from a line of woman who are all trusted with communicating and helping the dead find peace. With the death of her mother, she is passed this “gift” that she is not sure she wants- after hearing from her dead mother who remains bitter about having this gift. Not fully prepared for her destiny- how will Yejide use her gift?
What happens when a Grave Digger and a woman who is charged with helping the dead find peace meets? Well… a lot!
What a stunning debut. Ayanna Banwo’s writing is immersive and atmospheric- once you start reading you are immediately transported to the streets of Port Angeles. The entire time I was reading the book I felt like I was holding my breath waiting for the other shoes to drop- and that goes back to how spellbinding the writing is. Filled with themes magical realism, fantasy, traditions, romance, love and mother-daughter /mother-son relationship that were all explored in fresh ways.
I could not get enough of Darwin as a character, weeks later and my mind still returns to him and wishes him the best. I felt so much for Darwin and I think it is because the author spent so much time taking us inside his mind- we felt we were there with him. While I wanted to have that same reaction to Yejide, I felt more time could have been spent building her out individual- a lot of her character was tied to her mother, her aunty and grandmother- to the point where I hardly knew who she was as a singular character. I also felt the pacing of the book could have been better- it started off really slow and then raced at the end.
Ayanna Banwo is a Caribbean voice I cannot wait to hear more from! What a great debut!