The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Zambia)

I read this over a period of four weeks in a group read along in July.

wp-1629985501548..jpgIt is a vast tome, that traverses generations and continents, though the thing that connects them all is the country Zambia.

The novel is book-ended by brief chapters entitled The Falls and The Dam. It begins near the infamous Victoria Falls in an area five miles above the Falls on the banks of the Zambezi River, where it’s deepest and narrowest and easiest for ‘drifting’ a body across the other side.

Here there was an old colonial settlement that came to be known as The Old Drift and an old drifter caught up in an event that sets off the intertwined narrative.

“This is the story of a nation — not a kingdom or people — so it begins, of course, with a white man.”

Split into three sections, within which there are three characters in each, from three parts of a family tree. The Grandmothers, The Mothers, The Children.

It is a sprawling saga by nature of crossing that many generations, though the stories narrow and overlap by the time it comes to the children, the differences between them nothing like the generations before them.

Drifting Across Genre

The Old Drift Namwali Serpell

Zambezi River at the junction of Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana

Its a novel that also crosses genre beginning in a colonial era with European settlers, and the women they brought with them, the secrets they kept, the way they live, what is expected of them.

I enjoyed reading the first part of Sibilla and Agnes and I liked that the chapters were structured that way, that we were reading of the three grandmothers, that we knew this ahead of time.

It felt comforting to be reading inside this known framework, (for such a vast book), so while there were many characters, these women orient the reader.

While reading a section I could hold on to who the characters were however as the sections changed it was often necessary to refer back to the family tree. I enjoyed the first two sections and though I was forewarned that the ending was going to cross genre, it felt somewhat disconnected to the earlier sections and I found myself reluctant to pick it up at times.

In an interview the author when asked about this genre crossing responded that “these collisions are at the heart of the creative process.”

waterfalls

Photo Jonny Lew on Pexels.com

I wondered if it was because I read it over the course of a month, but reading weekly commentary in the ReadAlong group discussing the book, it seems many had a similar issue with the change of pace and narrative direction of the latter part of the novel. Like the river itself, the narrative drifts and wanders, swirls and eddies, then changes pace as it moves towards that vast precipice, converging for the final spill.

“with a sprawling cast that springs from Zambia, England and Italy. Over the course of three generations, Serpell follows historical figures and fictional characters as they converge on Lusaka, drawing them closer into each others’ orbit through independence in 1964, the HIV/Aids epidemic and on into a near future filled with mosquito drones and revolution” – extract from an interview with Richard Lea, Guardian

Further Reading

A Helpful Review: NPR The Old Drift’ Takes The Long View Of Human (And Mosquito) History

Interview:  Guardian Richard Lea speaks to Namwali Serpell The Old Drift ‘As a young woman I wasn’t very nice to myself’

7 thoughts on “The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Zambia)

  1. I like reading African Lit by authors who live there. I am less enamoured of novels written with what amounts to a stranger’s eye because the author left the country when she was nine and was educated in the US and lives and works there.
    So this one is not for me, I think.

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  2. Do you do a lot of reading by the shore? I fear I would just end up staring at the water!

    This sounds good to me and I enjoy the kind of meandering between voices and genres that you’ve described. Your reluctance to pick up the book again after the later genre shift reminds me of common complaints about one of David Mitchell’s books which also takes that spin (won’t say which to avoid spoilers).

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