The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell is one of the most ambitious novels I have ever read, and it’s her debut! The sheer heft of the book – in length, scope, and subject matter – is jaw dropping. What Serpell accomplishes is truly something special and I highly recommend you grab a copy ASAP!
Told through four generations of three families, The Old Drift is a multigenerational epic about the history of Zambia . The lives of the families (one Italian, one Zambian, one Indian) overlap and intersect over more than 150 years through the colonial settlement on the banks of the Zambezi River, Zambian independence, a Zambian space program, the AIDs epidemic, and into the future. The entire novel is held together by – of all things – mosquitoes that act as a Greek chorus narrating between each chapter.
I know, I know…it sounds like a lot of plot to cram into a book, even a long book! And it is, but that is the beauty of it! The story would have been totally overwhelming if all the elements were not weaved together so gracefully. There are around 20 major characters (luckily there is a family tree in the front of the book to help keep everyone in order!) Not only are the characters complex and diverse, they are all well developed and fully fleshed out. Its broad plot could easily have bogged down the story but Serpell brilliantly focuses on the human elements that all readers can relate to: love, death, happiness, shame, desire, fear. By telling the characters individual stories, what is created is a unique telling of a country’s history.
Admittedly, I have a soft spot in my heart for multigenerational stories. I love the deep dive into the characters and the time these types of books allow the reader to experience the story. In The Old Drift there are so many characters and storylines that I completely adored! I especially loved when the story delved into the magical. One character has hair that continually grows all over her body and another one that cries for decades. And the near future that is depicted doesn’t seem that farfetched: cell phones are implanted in peoples hands, the government runs mass surveillance, and a particularly interesting and frightening type of drone warfare develops that you will just have to read to find out!
I loved The Old Drift but reading it actually took me a long time! Not just because I’m a painfully slow reader but also because I wanted to savor every line. The story is beautiful, funny, creative, magical, heartbreaking, complex, and everything you could ask for in a book. I’m floored that this is Namwali Serpell’s debut novel! GET IT GIRL! I am now a HUGE fan and cannot wait to read what this masterful storyteller writes next!
** Hogarth provided me a copy of the book for honest review
- Title: The Old Drift
- Author: Namwali Serpell
- Published: March 21, 2019 (Hogarth)
- Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
- Booky Nooky Rating: * * * * *