BOOK REVIEW: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

The Old DriftThe Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel follows three Zambian families through three generations from before there was a Zambia (when it was Northern Rhodesia) into the near future. The nine chapters each correspond to a member of one of the families for a given generation. Throughout the first two parts — i.e. “Grandmothers” and “Mothers” — we occasionally see the lives of members of the three families bump into each other, but in the third (“Children”) we see them become entwined. The families are ethnically diverse. The grandmothers include an Italian and a Brit who married a black Rhodesian. And there is a mixed-race marriage involving an Indian merchant. While the diversity of the novel’s cast makes for some interesting considerations of identity (e.g. how one views oneself versus how one is viewed by others,) it’s not so much central to the story as it is a flavoring of the story.

While we learn in a prologue that the title is a term used by the locals living near Mosi-o-Tunya (Victoria Falls) regarding the Zambezi River, it takes on another meaning as the book’s theme. The thematic meaning has more to do with impotence to fix the country’s problems. In other words, the momentum of Zambia’s “drift” simply can’t be overcome. A central idea in the book is squandered potential. Each of the three grandmothers shows a potential for greatness that is wasted not only because they are women in a patriarchal society. Sibilla is afflicted with a condition in which hair grows over her entire body at an incredibly rapid rate. Agnes is a skilled tennis player until she goes blind. Matha is smart as a whip, but she becomes caught in the orbit of men who are dim.

Each character is caught in this inexorable “drift” that is littered with detritus like poverty, AIDS, technological dependence, and weak governance. By the time it comes to the third generation, they are not only loaded with potential but (to a large extent) have access to resources but they still can’t manage to advance on solutions. In fact, they can’t seem to help but to contribute to the problems they are set against. In a crucial scene, a confluence of the work of the three (Joseph’s vaccination, Jacob’s drones, and an embedded communication device worked on by Naila) all come together in an action that is just what they are trying to create a revolution against. [Not having control or autonomy, but rather being colonized in an entirely new kind of way.] The problem is so amorphous and vast that a consensus of what it even is can’t be agreed upon.

I picked up this book as part of my project to read literature from every country I visit, and I’m glad I did. It’s hard to imagine a book that is more useful for that purpose because it covers so much ground in terms of the history of the country and the lives of a range of Zambians from prostitutes living in shacks to the wealthy elite — not to mention the various minorities.

The book is literary fiction, centered on the characters, but a story does unfold as well as a powerful thematic exploration. The book isn’t easily classified. There is even an element of science fiction in that “beads” [imagine a smart phone built into the human hand, using neuro-electrical energy for power] are an important plot device and are relevant in the resolution of the story. There is this technology being made available to Zambians, free or at low-cost, but they are guinea pigs and have no say in how it works, when it works, or how it’s used. (In a way, that is the story of us all and is not unique to Zambia, Africa, or even the developing world.) This technological dependence is presented as a kind of neo-colonialism, and – in that regard – it’s railed against, even as people are addicted to the tech in the same way people are to their phones today. While “Bead” and advanced drone technology are central to the story, one wouldn’t call this science fiction, per se, but it’s hard to ignore the salience of technology as an element of power (and how that plays into the story.)

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. While it may be particularly intriguing if you have a special interest in African or Zambian literature, one need not have a particular interest for the book to be engaging and a worthwhile read.

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DAILY PHOTO: 3 Views of the Zambezi

Taken in May of 2017 on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia

DAILY PHOTO: Grazing Zebras

Taken in June of 2017 in Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) National Park