The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift is a blend of genres I have never seen before. On the one hand, it is very much a family saga. There is even a sprawling family tree included at the beginning of the book. But, by the end, it is an Afrofuturist revolutionary story. The various segments of the book combine to create a conclusive ending, but the plot meanders as much as the Zambesi River that appears to book end the whole tale.

The first narrator of The Old Drift almost put me off the entire book. Percy Clark is a typical British bwana who has fetched up in a place along the Zambesi called “The Old Drift” by its inhabitants. Clark shoots the local wildlife, demeans the indigenous Bemba, and who generally contributes nothing except his genetic material to progeny who will eventually intermarry with Bembas, Ndebeles, Telugu-speaking Indians, and Italians. As The Old Drift, well, drifts along, we see the people who will become the ancestors of the teens who will eventually transform Zambia into something like a utopia in the rushed ending to the book. We meet Sibilla, who has full body hirsutism, who has unknown connections to the Old Drift. Then there’s blind Agnes, who falls in love at with a visiting student from Zambia only to end up estranged from him in the same house, and Matha, who is trained to be one of Zambia’s first astronauts only to end up in poverty and incessantly weeping.

The stories contained within The Old Drift often revolve around the body; there are frequent references to menstrual blood, damaged eyes, and lots and lots of hair. It was hard for me to understand the grotesqueries wrapped up in so many of the female characters’ stories. (Although the book begins with a male character, most of this book is about women.) It was much easier for me to understand the theme of exploitation that ran through the book. Over and over, Zambia and its people are used for electricity, labor, and test subjects for mass experiments. It’s the same thing every generation and, until the characters are able to seize the means of production, it seems like it will keep going on indefinitely. (Marxism makes many appearances, too.) But this book is not poverty tourism. While characters are frequently exploited, they often find ways to carve out a bit of peace or comfort in their lives—not always, but often enough that I didn’t feel like the characters were completely doomed.

The Old Drift has been getting a lot of buzz. I confess, however, that I found the book uneven. Much of the book reads to me a bit like a Southern Gothic family epic, with plenty of closet-bound skeletons and genetic mutations. But the end of the book is straight-up science fiction. I had no idea that I would end up reading about cyborg body modifications or hive-minded micro drones based on the first chapter about a British man who was looking for an easy life in Africa. I think I might have liked the book better if it had used more genres. If Sibilla’s section had had more horror than it did and if Lionel’s had had a bit more thriller and if some of the other parts had had more that was unique about them, I think The Old Drift might have knocked my socks off.

As it is, I’m not entirely sure why this book is being talked about so much by critics and readers. This might just be another case (and there are many) of a book that just isn’t for me. Readers who enjoy family sagas and/or books set in places that don’t usually appear in popular literary fiction might like The Old Drift. Me, I think I’ll wait for something that’s either more generically cohesive or something that pulls out all the stops in the other direction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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