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 epic story of a small African nation, told by a mysterious swarm-like chorus that calls itself man's greatest nemesis. The tale? A playful panorama of history, fairytale, romance and science fiction. The moral? To err is human.
The writing is magnificent. The Old Drift is a tale of a changing world, a changing nation, a changing people, with all the love, longing, desire, and loss that go with it. The cruelties and the exploitation, not just by the colonials, but by each other, are shocking. You get so involved with the characters that you want to step in and stop the bad times, let their hopes and dreams come true.
This history was at once so foreign to me yet at the same time so familiar, so compellingly filled with the music and scents and sensations of Zambia brought to life by author Namwali Serpell. A cloud of sadness and futility hang over everything, yet hope, determination and courage push through. It’s sometimes magical, sometimes horrifying. It’s history, fairytale, romance and science fiction all rolled into one satisfying story. This is not a book you read lightly, not one you read to escape, but a book you won’t soon forget.
It reminds me a lot of Overstory: in both books, we are introduced to a bunch of characters who don't seem to have anything to do with each other, but whose stories eventually become tightly connected, and in both books, we realize in the very last pages that humans weren't really the main characters at all.
Serpell's writing is beautiful and engaging: with a less-skilled author, I would have wanted this book to be half as long, but her writing is so gorgeous, her characters so real, that I could have kept reading for another 600 pages.
Speaking of characters..... there are a lot of them. Enough that it can be hard to keep them all straight. Naturally some of them are better-developed than others, but Serpell is one of those writers who can evoke an entire person with a few sentences. Ultimately, though, the humans that are the focus of the events of the story aren't really the main characters. The story is really about Zambia and colonialism, from the racism of the first white explorers to the racism of the Chinese scientists who use Zambians as human guinea pigs for AIDS medications, to the vague outside political and technological forces who give Zambians technology just so they can control them.
The end of the book is at once exhilarating, ambitious, and a bit unsatisfying. There's a lot to chew on here, and ultimately it's hard to be sure what the reader's big takeaway should be. Then again, this book defies all genres and expectations, so that shouldn't be a surprise.
I'm going to be thinking about this book for weeks, and I can't wait for Serpell to write another novel.
The narrative framework here is very complex with a large cast and characters that hold centre stage in one section then reappearing in a support role in later chapters, or vice verse, playing support and then becoming central to the story. Events are described multiple times, from different character viewpoints at different times in their lives; for example, a woman takes part in an event, which is later re-described from the perspective of her child when an adult.
The focus is relentlessly on the lived lives of the characters involved with references to political changes or the wider historical context intruding through asides or picked up in casual conversations. The main characters for the first two-thirds of the book are exclusively women. It is only in the last third that two male characters take centre stage.
A driving engine for the book is magical realism - coincidences too strange to be believed; character traits, both moral and physical, that are distinctly odd; the use of hair as a defining element of both unity and division. I am not convinced all of these work. The rest of the world seems to accept these oddities as normal behaviour and never give them a second thought; and some are nothing more than personal tics that do not seem to add to the flow of the story.
The ending is particularly well done with Africa as the ground zero for a radical realignment and merging of technology and nature that may dominate the world.
Very readable, but perhaps a bit too deep for me.