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March 2022 Adult Top Picks

When We Were Birds
By (author): Ayanna Lloyd Banwo
Ayanna Lloyd Banwo


Bond Street Books



Product Form:



General / adult
Mar 15, 2022
$34.00 CAD


8.54in x 5.82 x 1.08 in | 1.04 lb

Page Count:

304 pages
Doubleday Canada
Bond Street Books
FICTION / Magical Realism
A mythic love story set in Trinidad & Tobago, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s radiant debut introduces two unforgettable outsiders brought together by their connection with the dead.

In the old house on a hill, where the city meets the rainforest, Yejide’s mother is dying. She is leaving behind a legacy that now passes to Yejide: one St. Bernard woman in every generation must shepherd the city’s souls into the afterlife. But after years of suffering her mother’s neglect and bitterness, Yejide is looking for a way out.

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 gravedigging, 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’ 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, shot through with the rhythm of the island, When We Were Birds is a spellbinding novel about inheritance, loss and love’s seismic power to heal.

Story Locale: Trinidad & Tobago

WILDLY TALENTED DEBUT AUTHOR: The moment you sit down with this novel, you’ll see it. This is the debut of a soon-to-be prize-winning author with astonishing command of her voice and material.

A LOVE STORY FOR THE AGES: This book has so much to offer, but at its core it is a sweeping, heart-swelling love story. The kind that has you clutching your chest when you finish, brimming with joy that this world exists and these two lovers found each other.

TWO-BOOK PREEMPT: We are partnered with Doubleday US, who preempted this book in a two-book deal, knocking out two other attempted preempts in the process. There’s an easter egg in When We Were Birds that nods to the second novel, which is also set in Port Angeles with an estimated pub date of Fall ’24 or Spring ’25.

AYANNA LLOYD BANWO is a writer from Trinidad & Tobago. Her work has been published in The Caribbean Writer, Moko Magazine, Small Axe, POUi, Pree, Callaloo and Anomaly. She received an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia and is now a postgraduate researcher in creative-critical writing at UEA. When We Were Birds is her first novel.

Author Residence: Norwich, UK

Author Hometown: Trinidad & Tobago

Author Website: ayannalloydbanwo.com

Author Social Media: Twitter: @AyaRoots

“A searing symphony of magic and loss, love and hope, where in the middle of death, love comes shiny, sparkling and alive. This book might just heal you.” —Marlon James, New York Times bestselling author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf

“Mythic and captivating…. When [Yejide and Darwin] meet, the connection is instantaneous and electric. The third-person narration oscillates between her perspective and his, allowing us into their intimacy as it unfolds. The anchor of this story, though, is Trinidad itself. Banwo roots the reader in its traditions and rituals, in the sights and sounds and colors and smells of fruit vendors, fish vendors, street preachers and schoolchildren. In the glorious matriarchy by which lineage is upheld. The result is a depiction of ordinary life that’s full and breathtaking.” —Kai Harris, The New York Times

“An ode to the idea that broken traditions can lead to beautiful new beginnings.” TIME

“The poetic prose in Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel captivates from the start. . . . When We Were Birds is a unique love story whose magical setting in Trinidad takes center stage.” —Real Simple

“Mysterious, atmospheric and richly painted. [A] mystical love story.” —Good Housekeeping

“[A] moving and mythic debut…. Banwo’s stunning lyricism offers a window into her characters as well as a view of the landscape…. The otherworldly setting instantly pulls the reader in. This remarkable debut should not be missed.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[A] wonderfully original debut novel…. Blending sobering urban realities with a Caribbean-infused magical realism, Banwo has created a unique world expansive enough to contain a ghost story, a love story, a mysterious mythology and a thoughtful examination of how family bonds keep us firmly rooted to our pasts…. Banwo makes you care deeply about the outcome and deftly weaves the realistic and the fantastic into a strange and compelling tapestry. With skill and heart, she has created a world readers will happily return to, even if they don’t usually gravitate toward fantasy.” Kirkus Reviews

When We Were Birds weaves story, history, place and the supernatural. It gives us a fictional Trinidad very much alive…. The work is lyrical, at points virtuosic and often written in a style inflected with Trini creole. It is a love story if love is remembrance, recognition, a connection beyond words and temporality.” —Electric Literature

“With a lyricism and mastery that enchants with breathtaking…imagery and compelling characters drawn with exceptional wisdom and compassion, every page of this magical novel dazzles.” Electric Literature

When We Were Birds is a mesmerizing work of fiction, embedded with timeless, mythic magic and wisdom. A stunning new voice in fiction, Banwo’s tale is a standout from the crowd.” DailyHive

“Told in a colloquial Caribbean register that’s both lyrical and powerful…. A dynamic, amorphous story…. Thought-provoking, and leaves the reader with much to contemplate and admire.” Independent (Ireland)

“[A] masterly debut novel. It announces an important new voice in fiction, at once grounded and mythic in its scope and carried by an incantatory prose style…. Her writing draws on grief, but Lloyd Banwo’s literary gift lies in her capacity to transfigure that emotion—to conjure a cosmic landscape where the living coexist among the dead.” —The Observer

When We Were Birds is suffused with magic and myth…. Enchanting…. Lloyd Banwo shares an eye for Caribbean nature with Olive Senior, Jamaica’s poet laureate; the atmospheres here are intensely conjured.” The Telegraph

“A thoroughly original and emotionally rich examination of love, grief and inheritance…. When We Were Birds is full of life…. The scenes it hosts are packed with drama, colour and tension, particularly in her gripping finale…. Her novel takes flight and soars.” —The Economist

“A deeply satisfying debut…. 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…. Dramatic, joyful, intensely satisfying fiction.” —The Observer

“Gorgeously sure writing…. Lloyd Banwo wields patois with pride…. Lloyd Banwo conjures an aching sexual energy, places the lovers in deliciously paced jeopardy and takes the tale to an agreeably thundery climax…. A love letter for Trinidad.” —The Guardian

“Sharp characterization and the richness of the language make this work of magic realism a truly immersive reading experience…. An intimate exploration of life. [Banwo] weaves in themes of parental neglect and abandonment, embracing adulthood and navigating corruption within an intriguing mix of mythical folklore. This layering of the earthly and the otherworldly leaves the reader with much to reexamine long after the last page is turned.” Booklist

“Radiant. …A masterwork of lush imagination and exuberant storytelling, When We Were Birds is a spellbinding and hopeful novel about inheritance, loss and love’s seismic power to heal.”  —Book Riot

“This masterfully crafted Trinidad-set debut is the love-story-cum-ghost-story you didn’t know you needed this Valentine’s Day, from an irresistible new voice in fiction.” —Zoella

“[An] accomplished, mesmerizing debut novel…. The passion and unflinching honesty with which Emmanuel and Yehide explore [grief] is unforgettable.” —Woman & Home

“Ayanna Lloyd Banwo paints her pulsing, believable Trinidad with light and intimacy. When We Were Birds is an immediately seductive, pleasurable experience because of the craft in the colloquial language—the story is told in Creole English—and a surefooted attention to detail…. The author handles the death-lore beautifully…. The journey is a rich one, awash with evocative detail…. A tour de force of language and insight, an accomplished and confident debut from Ayanna Lloyd Banwo.” —The Irish Times

“Soulful, haunting, a deep-rooted love story…. Uniquely tackling themes of grief, identity and acceptance, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s rhythmic prose builds tension at every step.” —Stylist

“Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s When We Were Birds is crafted from the very essence of memory, the long memory, which can only be drawn from the mind and translated into the written word by someone with Banwo’s lyrical mastery. Heartwarming and heartbreaking, fantastical and familiar, with characters that burrow their way into your heart and mind with their tragedies and triumphs, When We Were Birds more than sings, more than beams. It is the kind of story that makes you want to spread your arms open wide, embrace the sky, and take flight in your own little way. It is glorious.” —Robert Jones, Jr., New York Times bestselling author of The Prophets

“Where to begin listing Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s many achievements with this extraordinary debut? It is rare for me to open a novel and fall into it with such catalyzing, total surrender. Banwo’s powerfully formed literary gifts render each word, voice, and character with pulse and grit and aliveness. Every ordinary and fantastical occurrence in these pages reveal a novelist who arrives here in full flight with When We Were Birds—a marvel of a book.” —Canisia Lubrin, author of The Dyzgraphxst

“Combining the richness of myth with razor-sharp observation of contemporary life, When We Were Birds marks the emergence of a distinctive and powerful voice.” —Pat Barker, Booker Prize-winning author of Women of Troy

“Uplifting, engaging, expansive: this was just the book I needed. In a voice infused with the rhythms of Trinidad and Tobago, Banwo has crafted the perfect love story, one that moves with deftness between the furies of urban poverty and the gentle infinities of the afterlife. The hard-won peace and redemptive love in this story are real, and something we need more of in the world.” —Kawai Strong Washburn, author of Sharks in the Time of Saviors

“Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s voice is haunting, and When We Were Birds is a novel of exquisite detail that opens up the liminal space between folklore and the world we inhabit.” —Avni Doshi, author of Burnt Sugar

“Ayanna Lloyd Banwo comes from a lineage of high Caribbean Lit and it shows. This is an impressive debut about love, family, ancestry, the dead and the living. Read this book for its magic and realism too, for its deft weaving together of lives from a city with a huge cemetery at its centre, where the dead lie restless and sometimes loosen from their graves. Ayanna Lloyd Banwo conjours old magic and yet she is a strong, new voice.” —Monique Roffey, author of The Mermaid of Black Conch

“I love this book: the originality of its premise, the power and beauty of its prose; the depth of its explorations of what it means to love and be loved. When We Were Birds is about the silver cord of memory and blood, and history that bind a family of women even after death. An exceptional novel that delivers on its promise.” —Jacob Ross, author of The Bone Readers

“A moving and fervent meditation on belief, love, family and the transitionary power of death, Banwo’s spirited, finely wrought prose draws you in and doesn’t let go. When We Were Birds marks a distinctive, bold and truthful new voice in literature.” —Courttia Newland, author of A River Called Time

“Magical, enchanting, majestic…. Infused with the lush and terrible beauty of the Trinidadian landscape, When We Were Birds weaves dreams and apparitions, religion and myth, into a story of love in its many manifestations.” —Barbara Jenkins, author of De Rightest Place

“I loved it…. A love story between two outsiders but also a love letter to language itself, full of myth but deeply grounded in reality.” —Anna Ellory, author of The Puzzle Women

“Ayanna Lloyd Banwo is one of those rare voices you come across once in a long while—strong, confident and necessary. She reminds us what we should expect from great writing: the daring to take chances and to experiment with language and form.” —Helon Habila, author of Travellers

“An eloquent and breathtaking novel from an irresistible new voice. The words are there on the page and then whoop! Suddenly they are right in the centre of your heart. Ayanna Lloyd Banwo writes on the wings of love and death.” —Tessa McWatt, author of The Snow Line

“A love story, a ghost story and a coming-of-age story, all masterfully woven into one. I loved it.” —Claire Adam, author of The Golden Child

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