When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo review – a deeply satisfying debut

This spirited Trinidadian love story about a gravedigger and a medium has echoes of Dickens

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.

At its centre are two young people wrestling with their destinies. Yejide St Bernard belongs to a long line of women duty-bound to commune with the dead. Her distant mother, Petronella, has railed against this spectral legacy, but now that she is dying it is incumbent upon her to induct Yejide into powers that will shortly become hers, remaking her from the inside out.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Darwin, a country boy, must buy medicine for Janaya, the mother who has raised him single-handedly. The only job he’s able to find is in Port Angeles, a place that “could swallow a man whole”, she warns, believing this is exactly what happened to Darwin’s father. Worse yet, the job is in a vast cemetery called Fidelis, and their Rastafari faith prohibits contact with the deceased. Shaving off his locks in preparation, Darwin becomes unrecognisable even to himself.

It’s at Fidelis that Darwin and Yejide meet, first during a wild storm from which she materialises, dressed in white and shaking its locked gates before vanishing into thin air, and later when she arrives to discuss her mother’s funeral. Their connection is instant, electric. But how can they forge a shared future from such radically different pasts?

Throughout, the supernatural is rendered in visceral terms. As Yejide comes into her powers, she registers the change first as a pain deep within, “like somebody sink a hook into her belly and yank from behind”. There is nothing fey about her predicament. As Darwin notes when he initially claps eyes on her: “She didn’t look lost or haunted, not at all. She look damn vex.”

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.

To his credit, Darwin takes his new girlfriend’s necromancy in his stride. Of more immediate concern is the sinister side hustle that his boss is operating at the bone yard. Errol is his name, though out on the streets he’s known as the Sweeper. He’s 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.

One of Yejide’s fondest childhood memories is sitting on her granny’s lap, looking up at a face “brimming with story”. When she shares with Darwin the tales she heard back then, they “call” to stories he was told and “echo like old truths”. The multiple components of When We Were Birds fit together with that same pleasing resonance.

  • When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Hephzibah Anderson

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