Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut is presented as a romance, but it also centres another kind of love: the complexity of mothering and its beautiful and terrible consequences. On the eve of her mother Petronella’s death, protagonist Yejide provides one of the book’s most haunting extended metaphors: “She only know her mother through moments meant for someone else.” As a child, she creeps after Petronella, watching her intense relationship with her aunt, her mother’s twin, and saving the memories of her own neglect in multicoloured boxes that she spreads out and looks at sometimes: a light blue box that “smells like loneliness”; a forest-green box, “wide with a false bottom”; another, black, “padlocked and humming”; a box in heavy purple, “like an unanswered question”.
When We Were Birds moves between two characters, Yejide and Darwin, living in a fictionalised Trinidad, its rich urbanity so fondly drawn that it occasionally threatens to take over the narrative. Darwin was raised Rastafarian in the countryside by a devoted mother, the pair “living like their own island”. They fall out painfully when Darwin must take a city job as a gravedigger, defying scripture (Numbers 21:6 says “the Nazarite must not go near a dead body”). The scene where Darwin shears his head in order to work is tender and lonely and powerful, reminiscent of Kei Miller’s hymnal to Rastafarianism in his 2016 novel Augustown.
As Darwin faces his financial responsibilities, Yejide has her own duty, and the community around her after her mother’s death – including beloved stepfather Peter and childhood friend and lover, Seema – expect her to claim it. According to the creation myth told by her grandmother, Yejide is the latest in a line of women transformed, hundreds of years ago, from corbeaux, or carrion birds, into human witnesses to the dead, ushering them into the afterlife. Now she must balance her own dreams with the needs of ghosts. She and Darwin have both been made older before their time as their parents hustled to survive. If European literature lionises the orphan trope, Black literature spotlights the uber-capable Black child and the complex effects of duty.
The first half of the book introduces the couple before they meet and features some gorgeously sure writing. Like Trinidadian novelists before her, such as Monique Roffey and Ingrid Persaud, Lloyd Banwo wields patois with pride. She paints the fictional Port Angeles in glorious sound and motion, especially the graveyard Fidelis, this “city of bone”. Darwin is changed for ever, digging his first hole and watching a widower beside it: “Mr Julius make a sound like the end of a fight when you get so much blows that it eh even make sense to bawl anymore.”
And the romance between Darwin and Yejide? There is no question that the novel ignites when they finally meet, first in a shared vision, and then to arrange Petronella’s burial. Lloyd Banwo conjures an aching sexual energy, places the lovers in deliciously paced jeopardy and takes the tale to an agreeably thundery climax.
Still, there are first-novel weaknesses. Darwin’s sections are focused and precise, making for a satisfying romantic lead and a complex human being. Unfortunately, Yejide sometimes feels like a device created to express an idea: her family’s corbeaux legacy is increasingly overwrought and muddied, perhaps because Lloyd Banwo takes too much delight in explaining it to us. Yejide’s sections feel overpacked: with ideas and with minor characters, insufficiently delineated. It was good to see lesbian love made tenderly Caribbean – the mosquito nets and the rain – and so Yejide’s easy rejection of Seema feels disappointing, almost as if having a vision of Darwin in all his magnificent heterosexuality renders their long-time love merely childish. “What matters is your ancestors,” yells Seema, as Yejide prepares to abscond with her man. “And you don’t get to turn away from that because your mother didn’t love you enough.” There will be no perfect Hollywood ending, then – duty is clear and irrefutable.
But is a balance possible? Can you ever leave the past behind for some flagrant idea of freedom? Should you? Ultimately, the text suggests that its characters are, at least in part, lovable and loving because of the sacrifices they continue to make, and that that is more than enough. “A small life is a life still, ent?” says Darwin, walking with his long-lost father.
“You still think love is something nice,” hisses Petronella’s ghost, and her daughter is troubled, until she meets Darwin. Lloyd Banwo has written a love letter for Trinidad, to remind all of us that yes, love is still very, very nice indeed.
• Leone Ross’s novel This One Sky Day is published by Faber. When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.