When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

It begins with the tale of Port Angeles, a bustling city that now rests upon an ancient but forgotten place. A place of violence, buried deep down beneath its concrete surface, from a time when animals could speak, and humans had not yet arrived with buildings and logic.

In the present, Darwin, an all-too-good Rastafarian has grown up fatherless in the countryside. Desperate for money to support his aging mother, Darwin forces himself to take the last government job available: a gravedigger in the Fedelis cemetery. Meanwhile, in the wake of her mother’s death, Yejide confronts a strange storm brewing outside her hillside home – the magical power from her long line of female ancestry: to see and feel the dead.

When We Were Birds is a fresh debut steeped in a rich tradition of Trinidadian folklore and oral storytelling. I was moved by the lush, mythological creature floating in thick air that is this story – its textured mapping of a place, its burnt sage scent, colour palette sweeter than mango, full of decay and brimming with vegetal overgrowth. Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s lucid prose creates a feeling of existential drift that floats ceaselessly between the womb and the cemetery. Fidelis is a place of remembering and forgetfulness, with a pulse and rhythm of its own – a place of loss and belonging from which two stories become inextricably bound in the rituals of love and death.

Jivan Simons Mistry is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.