The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell #Zambia
Published: March 2019
Genre: Genre What? Genre who?
Rating: 5 Stars
On the banks of the Zambezi River, a few miles from the majestic Victoria Falls, there was once a colonial settlement called The Old Drift. Here begins the story of a small African nation, told by a swarm-like chorus that calls itself man’s greatest nemesis.
In 1904, in a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives – their triumphs, errors, losses and hopes – form a symphony about what it means to be human.
From a woman covered with hair and another plagued with endless tears, to forbidden love affairs and fiery political ones, to home-grown technological marvels like Afronauts, micro drones and viral vaccines – this novel sweeps over the years and the globe. (Source: Goodreads)
If I do not read another book for the rest of the year, I will be fine. This is an extraordinary book that spans 120 years from 1903 to 2023, a multigenerational story that hosts a multiplicity of subplots, blending in multiple genres (historical fiction, magical realism, speculative fiction/Afrofuturism) and even has a Greek chorus in between chapters narrated by a swam of mosquitos! It’s A LOT. It requires patience. But, it is brilliant and it is totally worth it.
Namwali in ‘The Old Drift’ tells the story of Zambia’s past, present and imagined near future. It is structured in 3 Parts: The Grandmothers, The Mothers and The Children and each part is further divided into 3 sections all centred around a woman in that generation. We follow the lives of these women and their families over a century as they evolve, diverge and converge; and as connections are made in each subsequent generation. Every time a connection was made, I felt a jolt of excitement like I had pieced together pieces of a puzzle.
The generations are represented by different genres – The Grandmothers represented by historical fiction and aspects of magical realism, will trace the origins of The Grandmothers (one blind, one with hair that grows abnormally fast and one who cries for years), from Italy and England and Northern Rhodesia; through colonisation, pre and post-independence to merge into the new nation of Zambia. This becomes their unifying identity.
The Mothers, represented by Social Realism and Science fiction follows the second generation through turbulent political times and the HIV/AIDs scourge that ravaged Africa in the 80s and 90s. And The Children are represented by Speculative Fiction and Afrofuturism which envision a near-future Zambia with drones the size of mosquitos and a viral vaccines.
“…‘history’ was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure.”
An error might have set the ball rolling for The Old Drift but Serpell’s seemingly long novel is not long by error but by design. There is purpose to every word, every sentence and every character. Even the secondary and tertiary characters who do not seem to serve any purpose when they are initially introduced come full circle in subsequent chapters which speaks to the level of thought Serpell put into writing this book. She remains true to Zambia’s history and the socio-political environments of each generation. Her characters also bend in with the times making it truly a book that transcends time and generations. A timeless book!
Does it have some weaknesses? Yes. There are aspects of the book I didn’t enjoy, ‘The Children’ being my least favourite but the strengths of this book are enough to make you overlook any aspects that irk or upset you. I dare say this is Africa’s Book of the Year!
Word of advice: Don’t waste your time trying to categorise this book, just dive in and let it take you to literary paradise!