When We Were Birds

Doubleday. Mar. 2022. 304p. ISBN 9780385547260. $27. F
DEBUT Set in a beautifully rendered alternate-universe Trinidad and Tobago, this first novel is a wonderfully crafted love story detailing the relationship between two young Trinidadians, Yejide and Darwin. The couple meet at Fidelis, a cemetery in the bustling city of Port Angeles where Yejide has come to inquire about specific burial rites for her mother. Darwin has reluctantly taken a job there as a gravedigger, which is in conflict with his Rastafarian upbringing and has also introduced him to a criminal enterprise involving his coworkers’ use of the Fidelis grounds for ill-gotten gains. Banwo enriches the story of the couple’s romance by introducing a magic realist element: Yejide’s calling, inherited from her mother, is to escort the dead toward the afterlife, assisted by corbeaux, or black vultures. It is not a destiny that Yejide has accepted readily.
VERDICT Banwo has penned a compelling and imaginative supernatural love story, offering vivid descriptions of local life and scenery that are matched by her application of the natural language rhythms. Though the novel’s narrative pace is initially slow, Banwo wraps up with a redemptive and hopeful flourish that readers will appreciate.
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