A love story, a ghost story, a thriller: Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s radiant first novel embraces elements of multiple genres, binding them through incantatory language steeped in the rhythms, fables and spirituality of her Trinidadian homeland ... Throughout, the supernatural is rendered in visceral terms ... It’s made all the more plausible by the gravitational pull of Banwo’s lushly delineated world— the cemetery, for instance, with its rampant foliage and gothic funerary architecture, or Morne Marie, the St Bernard family home, built on the ashes of a plantation house, its long corridors and wooden staircases indexing its transformation over the centuries ... Errol is...a splendid villain, his malevolence balanced by the savvy goodness of Shirley, keeper of all Fidelis’ records. Dickens is one of the less expected literary influences to haunt these magic-realism-inflected pages, but as the book navigates the meaning of family (it doesn’t always have much to do with biology) and inheritance (each generation gets to reshape it), its distinctiveness shines out: this is dramatic, joyful, intensely satisfying fiction.
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 ...
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 ... 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 novel is a tour de force of language and insight, an accomplished and confident debut from Ayanna Lloyd Banwo.
It’s a strange story—inscrutable in some ways—but riffing on themes of colonialism, power, ecology and death ... while the prose is compelling, some readers may find the book’s early sections slow. In its attempts to teach us the rules of its mythic world, it sometimes alienates the reader ... The opening leans too heavily on exposition with little explanation. Further compounding the feeling of stagnancy is the fact that our two protagonists don’t come together until halfway through the book. But when Darwin and Yejide’s stories do join, patient readers will be rewarded for their tenacity ... All these threads, and their mythical, magic realist context, make When We Were Birds a dynamic, amorphous story. It is at times challenging, but by turns thought-provoking, and leaves the reader with much to contemplate and admire.