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10 Reasons Why When We Were Birds Is the Best Love Story I Read in 2022

Sara is a hobby reader with a B.S. in English and an accountant's eye for detail. She creates annotating guides and writes on book analysis.


When We Were Birds

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel chronicles the unlikely love story of Yejide St. Bernard and Emmanuel Darwin. Neither character seeks romance when the novel begins. Instead, they have their sights set on defining personal identity and their places within a family legacy.


10 Reasons Why When We Were Birds Is a Great Romance Novel

Thematically, this novel is expansive and balanced. It deals with difficult topics, like grief and trauma, and does not shy away from the effects that loss and family responsibility have on romantic relationships.

In her personal life, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo has experienced family loss. In a Trinidad and Tobago Newsday article from January 23, 2022, Banwo explains how her grief informed the writing of When We Were Birds and how readers might see this in the novel’s details.

Darwin’s job at a large, old cemetery is an example of this influence. His work as a gravedigger is the twist of fate that brings him into Yejide’s life, but it adds so much more to the novel’s depth. His occupation is the reader’s unique window into a side of grief we do not often get to see. Through him, we learn how grieving people handle the practical aspects of death and dying, and we see the unique emotional burden of burial work.

1. Star-Crossed Lovers With Perfect Pacing

Star-crossed lovers fans will delight in Banwo’s deft hand with this trope. Yejide and Darwin are shooting stars, slowly but steadily careening toward each other. Readers keeping a keen eye out will notice eery similarities in the circumstances of their lives. They live in parallel with one another until the day they finally meet.

2. Sophisticated Take on Bonded Lovers

Yejide and Darwin have a strong and instantaneous connection, but both have their emotional guards up. They do not succumb to love at first sight, even while feeling they are meant to be. It is a classic bonded lovers trope, but in this novel, it serves as a beautiful and delicate detail within the love story.

The Trope Is Not Overdone

There’s no talk of mates, that’s for sure. Yes, if you are a BookTokker or Bookstagrammer wondering, that is an ACOTAR (A Court of Thorns and Roses) and Throne of Glass series dig!

3. Contemporary Gothic Setting

The novel takes place in a fictional version of modern Trinidad, featuring idyllic rural homes, harrowing mountain roads, and bustling city streets. The setting is gothic scenery at its best—picture old family estates, lush graveyards, meaningful dreams, ghosts, and a sprinkling of moth imagery. There are even handwritten letters.

“The island of Trinidad is real. The geography, characters, and places in this novel are fiction.”

— from the author’s note in When We Were Birds

4. Yejide and Darwin are Fully Dimensional Characters

The two main characters complement each other's lives but do not complete them. There is a strong conviction in the writing that they are meant to be supportive partners who stand together on equal footing.

5. Explores Male Friendships, Belonging, and Vulnerability

Darwin is a strong, emotionally aware, and nurturing character. He actively works on healing his own trauma. It is refreshing and heartwarming to get to know a male main character with this kind of composition. Darwin is a male lead to remember.

A Tip for Reading and Annotating Darwin's Character

Darwin has a natural ability to nurture other people, himself, and his environment, specifically when it comes to tending plants and gardening.

Red ixora is a flowering hedge that appears three times in Darwin’s storyline in Chapter 4, Chapter 24, and Chapter 35. As imagery, it is symbolic. The plant transforms with him, shifting from a neglected and suffering hedge to a thriving one.

6. Romantic Love Is Important, But It’s Not the Center of Everything

The novel has a fully-fledged plot, complete with mystery, multiple storylines, and many compelling themes. The love story goes perfectly with it all, but it is not the only thing to care about in this book.

In fact, as a reading challenge, try paying special attention to the myth told in Chapter 1. The myth reappears in the plot and enriches the love story. The myth’s unfolding is just as rewarding as the unfolding romance.

7. The Narrator Speaks in Trinidad’s English Creole Dialect

The omniscient narrator tells the story in the dialect of Trinidad. It’s beautiful. It may take a few pages for non-native speakers of this dialect to pick up on the language shift.

As a reader who speaks American English, I enjoyed looking up Trinidadian words and cultural references while I moved through the story. I highly recommend taking the time to do this too.

Here are three examples from my reading of the novel:

  1. Petit Careme. This is a short, dry period during Trinidad’s rainy season. It is mentioned in chapter two
  2. Break Buisse. This phrase appears in chapter three and means to skip school.
  3. The Doctor. The Doctor is a reference to Dr. Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, also known as the father of the nation.

8. Satisfying (Non-Tragic) Ending

Without getting into the realm of spoilers, the ending is perfect, even if it is not a rosy happily ever after. The conclusion feels uplifting, whole, and authentically complicated.

When We Were Birds is a stand-alone novel with no loose ends.

9. Dual His and Her Perspectives

The omniscient narrator treats the reader to both Yejide’s viewpoint and Darwin’s. Seeing both sides of the love story is delightful. For readers wary of keeping track of multiple viewpoints, do not fret. Banwo strikes a fine balance between the two perspectives and delineates when a voice shift occurs by labeling a chapter “Yejide” or “Darwin.”

10. Beautiful Writing and Many Quotable Moments

This novel is a work of art. There are scenes, lessons, and imagery that stick with the imagination, haunting the reader in a good way.

Yejide, for example, has a habit of constructing colorful boxes in her imagination to hold memories of loved ones. She visits these compartmentalized memories with care as if they were physical places of remembrance—like her family’s mausoleum or their rituals for honoring the dead and their belongings.

Book Quote

You know what a grave is, Darwin? Is the only piece of real estate most people own in they whole life. Each one have a deed like a house, like any other piece of land.

— from When We Were Birds, Chapter 10

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Good News for Fans of When We Were Birds

According to the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday article mentioned earlier, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo is working on her second novel, an entirely new story set in the same fictional version of Trinidad where When We Were Birds takes place.

Earlier this year, Banwo may have revealed a few hints about the next book on her Instagram account.

“I’ve been writing about houses these days. Houses as capital, as archives, as creative labs, as shelter, as inheritance. All the complicated feelings about ownership and being once owned and permanence and temporariness. How lack of capital makes housing fleeting, temporary and precarious.”

— Banwo in an Instagram caption on May 31, 2022

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Sara Everett