When We Were Birds [1]

Author:

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Title:

When We Were Birds [1]

Publisher:

Penguin

Nataka Books Reviews: 

When We Were Birds [1]

We meet the two protagonists Darwin, a gravedigger who does not appear to want to know much about his subjects, and Yejide, who deals with the same events that will bring her into Darwin's path at Fidelis Cemetery.


The brilliance of any novelist comes from shining light on any part of human existence, however precise the character, minute the detail or intense the glare, and produce a thrilling sense of observing a propulsively readable story whose development baffles and entralls as it moves between the mystical and earthly. This is a story on many levels pulled off skillfully by Banwo.


-- Review by Nataka Books

Nataka Books Full Review: 

When We Were Birds [1]

Book Synopsis:


The St. Bernard women have lived in Morne Marie, the house on top of a hill outside Port Angeles, for generations. Built from the ashes of a plantation that enslaved their ancestors, it has come to shelter a lineage that is bonded by much more than blood. One woman in each generation of St. Bernards is responsible for the passage of the city's souls into the afterlife. But Yejide's relationship with her mother, Petronella, has always been contorted by anger and neglect, which Petronella stubbornly carries to her death bed, leaving Yejide unprepared to fulfill her destiny.

Raised in the countryside by a devout Rastafarian mother, Darwin has always abided by the religious commandment not to interact with death. He has never been to a funeral, much less seen a dead body. But when his ailing mother can no longer work and the only job he can find is grave digging, he must betray the life she built for him in order to provide for them both. Newly shorn of his dreadlocks and his past and determined to prove himself, Darwin finds himself adrift in a city electric with possibility and danger.

Yejide and Darwin will meet inside the gates of Fidelis, Port Angeles's largest and oldest cemetery, where the dead lie uneasy in their graves and a reckoning with fate beckons them both. A masterwork of lush imagination and immersive lyricism, When We Were Birds is a spellbinding novel about inheritance, loss, and love's seismic power to heal.


Book Review:


We meet the two protagonists Darwin, a gravedigger who does not appear to want to know much about his subjects thereby inviting the reader to learn alongside him, and Yejide, who seems to posses magical visions and deals with the same events that will bring her into Darwin's path at Fidelis Cemetery.


Banwo brings sharp observations and evocative scenes of city activity on any day and the contrast with visitors to Fidelis, a part of the city they rarely expect to find themeselves in. "Some days Darwin can't work out how long he in the city...But now as it get closer to November, around All Souls' Day, is like the dead and the living come to a kind of truce. All graves quiet..."


The brilliance of any novelist comes from shining light on any part of human existence, however precise the character, minute the detail or intense the glare, and produce a thrilling sense of observing a propulsively readable story whose development baffles and entralls as it moves between the mystical and earthly. Darwin's outsider attitude, how he carries out his job whilst denying himself any connection to the present is pulled off skillfully by Banwo.


In a sense, following Darwin reminds us of the gravediggers in Hamlet who discuss where the bodies had been and how they lived. When one skull is identified as a lawyer's whilst digging, "where be his quiddities now?" is the retort from the other digger and they laugh nonchalantly as two workers assembling furniture in a factor or on a building site would. Darwin has the same distance to McIntosh, Jamesy and the other workmen af Fidelis.


Darwin is clearly searching for something. Perhaps he did not know from the outset but finds it in the meeting of Yejide whose mother Petronella has died, and she is on a quest of her own. Their destinies become entwined from this point onwards, binding Drawin and Yejide together through experiences of life and death which has visited them in different ways crossing their paths.  Is this all a dream to Darwin? As Yejide explains, "The dead done dead already..." 


The lessons Yejide learned from her mother will be her guide. "In the story the world was being torn apart by death, the living had no way to balance the dead. So the ancient birds became corbeaux - carrion birds - and they devour the dead. Balance Restored."


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-- Review by Nataka Books