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.