Friday, April 26, 2019

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, a genre-defying epic of Zambian history

Proudly uncategorizable, Serpell’s excellent first novel traverses a shifting genre landscape while delving into Zambia’s tumultuous history in intimate detail.

The Old Drift is a settlement along the Zambezi River where the novel begins in the early twentieth century. It concludes in 2023, covering British colonialism, the Kariba Dam’s construction, Zambian independence, the AIDS epidemic, and more.

“To err is human, that’s your doom and delight,” pronounces the unusual swarm of creatures narrating the story, which emphasizes the circumstantial and genetic chances affecting one’s life. While a genealogical chart reveals people’s connections, the plot remains surprising.

The tale of Sibilla, a hirsute Italian woman, has fairy-tale echoes. Matha, a teenage girl, trains as an astronaut, while other characters play major roles in medical research. From the Shiwa Ng’andu estate to the Kalingalinga compound, the deeply human, ethnically diverse characters fall in love, grieve, betray one another, and make shocking choices.

In this smartly composed epic, magical realism and science fiction interweave with authentic history, and the “colour bar,” the importance of female education, and the consequences of technological change figure strongly. It’s also a unique immigration story showing how people from elsewhere are enfolded into the country’s fabric.

While a bit too lengthy, Serpell’s novel is absorbing, occasionally strange, and entrenched in Zambian culture—in all, an unforgettable original.

I read The Old Dtift last December and wrote this (starred) review for Booklist's Feb 1 issue. The Old Drift was published in March.  It's nearly 600 pages long, an unusual and detailed novel not like anything I've read before!  Originally from Zambia, the author is an English professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

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