Historical Fiction · Speculative

The Old Drift

This particular backlist title has been on my radar since it’s publication a few years ago, but sort of as a backburner situation. Interestingly, I have no idea why I chose now to read it, as it’s not like my TBR is suddenly shorter or anything. But someone checked it out at the library the other day and it brought it back into the front of my mind, so I guess I just went for it. Added myself onto the waitlist for when it came back in and also for the audiobook, just in case (which turned out to be a great call because I needed it to keep myself moving through this one – not necessarily in a bad way, but just…this turned out to be a fairly dense book).

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

“You cannot contain the manifold fury of a people, a river, a woman!”

Starting in the early 1900s and following through the rest of the century and into the next, The Old Drift tells the simultaneous story of the birth and development of the nation of Zambia, as well as four generations of three families and the ways their lives intertwine with each other and with Zambia. But it also tells this story in a “sort-of” way, with a speculative and magical twist on reality. There are characters covered in hair and who cry unceasingly, there are sci-fi-ish medical and technological advancements, and there is a chorus of mosquitos that periodically appear and assist with the narration of this epic novel.

Well first, let me just say that Serpell went big here. She covered centuries and generations and personal and political and romance and historical fiction and magical realism and speculative future and really that’s probably not all of it. It is truly no wonder that this book ended up as long as it is. With all that being included, I’m going to do my best to speak to what worked and what didn’t (for me) in as short a review as possible (you know I’m verbose, so wish me luck). Let me maybe start here with the things that I wasn’t feeling as much, or that only partly worked. That way we can end with the good stuff! Honestly, I had mixed feelings about the scope. I do love an intergenerational novel (when I’m in the mood for one), especially in the way that Serpell does it, with interactions amongst them all sprinkled throughout (not quite as big as, but in the same sphere with, Girl Woman Other). And I really appreciated that family tree included at the beginning (I refered that a lot). I also individually loved many of the pieces – the revolutionary vibes, the romantic entanglements, the learning about another country/place that I’ve never read about before, the speculative Afrofuturist pieces in the final third or so – but I have to be honest and say that all together, it sort of ended up being too much. It felt a bit too scattered, too confusing (as far as keeping track of the characters and plot developments and connections amongst them all, etc.), too many things all struggling for attention and bumping up against one another in ways that felt a little discordant at times.

Relatedly, Serpell’s addressing of many major themes, like colonialism/imperialism, HIV, tech-waste, immigration/emigration, and just the general treatment of people in “developing” nations by nations with great financial power, is important and done in a well-nuanced way. I really enjoyed seeing the way these larger-scale interactions were interpreted by and affected our individual characters, their lives and choices and interactions with each other. But that’s definitely where the major focus of the novel was. I think that the representation of this story as a picture of an emerging nation is a bit of a reach, as it felt more to me like a picture of these three families and yes, it’s within the context of Zambia’s emergence, but that always felt more vague/background than anything. And finally, the ending. Throughout the novel, I could feel Serpell’s cautionary/interrogatory messages about imperialism and capitalism and the way it affected African peoples and nations (that wouldn’t have “existed” in the same way without it) and the national/continental pride in her telling. However with the ending, I sort of lost her message/goal. And maybe there wasn’t one. Maybe this was just a story about a “could have been/could be” situation. And yet, with the clear morals of the rest of the novel, I felt like the finale was rushed (as far as pacing) and unclear (as far as moral). And that seemed incongruous to me. 

And now to end with a few of the highlights. I already mentioned being into the sweeping aspects of the family story-telling, as well as many of the individual pieces of the novel. I also thought the writing was smart and just right for the story (though here, with the objective length, is where I really appreciated having the audiobook to help move me along). With that note, the primary narrator, Adjoa Andoh, was freaking phenomenal (and also plays my fav Bridgerton character, so that’s fun). Anyways, back to the writing, I thought the mosquito swarm-chorus was weird to start, but it grew on me over time, with its omniscient voice and lyrical communication, and then the final section, the way it came together to be tied into the major tech-advance theme of the novel, was super clever. As far as the presentation of the story, the style, I did like that we got a single perspective from each family for each generation. And I was into the fact that, when we got to the final group, the three “children” all come together in an unexpected and sort of strange way. Plus, I loved that it was almost all told from female perspectives (the “grandmothers” and “mothers”).   

All in all, this was an engrossing, absorbing and fairly epic novel. I admire what Serpell took on, the depth and breadth of this story of family and country, and though there were certain things that fell flat or felt off to me, at base I was fully transported into the world and characters and tale Serpell created.

A few quotes that really got me while reading this tome:

“One of the great burdens of blindness was having to help other people remember it.”

“During his time at university, [he] had learned that ‘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. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.”

“Only a sister, an alternative self, could inspire such a sordid mix of disgust and envy.”

“[She] had never considered that being female would thwart her so, that it would be a hurdle she had to jump every time she wanted to learn something: to read a book, to shout the answers, to make a bomb, to love a man, to fight for freedom.”

“How unwise, he thought, to love someone in advance of knowing them.”

“Sometimes the wonders of the world are better left unsaid.”

“Zambia is only young because of the foreigners.”

“We have to insert the errors into the system. Not with activism but with the inactive: the loiterers, the shitters, the unemployed – the idlers who jam the circulation of money and goods and information. A slow-moving riot.”

“I want to tell them that our minds are free, even if our hands are tied by poverty.”   

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