It is hard to say precisely what genre this novel is. Combining elements of science fiction and magical realism, the book is also rooted in Zambian history... The book has flaws: it is too long and the time-jumps can be confusing. But the wisdom, humour and humanity crammed onto every page more than make up for its shortcomings. Serpell is no sentimentalist — hopes are trashed, villains walk free, heroes lose their lustre, becoming sex workers, alcoholics, paedophiles — yet there are moments of such heart-wrenching poignancy that I had to put the book down several times and recompose myself. Serpell writes with the emotional maturity and sardonic smile of one who has lived several times already. It is the reader’s great privilege to follow her strange and vivid characters from cradle to grave.
“The Old Drift” is a strong and confident enough piece of writing to stand on its own two feet and is perhaps not well served by being placed on the shoulders of giants. Its structure is formal, three parts containing three sections each — “The Grandmothers,” “The Mothers” and “The Children.” Each of the nine sections is centered on one dominant character, all women in the first two parts, and, in the final section, two young men and one young woman. In between are to be found short, italicized sections narrated by an unnamed “we,” which work as a sort of Greek-chorus commentary on the action... “The Old Drift” is an impressive book, ranging skillfully between historical and science fiction, shifting gears between political argument, psychological realism and rich fabulism. It isn’t perfect. It’s long, and there are longueurs. Not all of the nine leading characters are as interesting as Agnes, Matha and Sibilla. Sometimes the history, the medical information and the science are laid on with too heavy a hand. But these imperfections should not detract from what is, by any standard, a dazzling debut, establishing Namwali Serpell as a writer on the world stage.
Namwali Serpell’s first novel is a rambunctious epic that traces the intertwined histories of three families over three generations. Serpell, who was born in Zambia and moved to the United States at the age of nine, won the Caine prize for African writing in 2015 for her short story “The Sack”. That work is a subtle and economical piece of writing which does not prepare one for the expansive and genre-meshing The Old Drift... Serpell is an ambitious and talented writer, with the chutzpah to work on a huge canvas. I was eager to read an African novel that used various genres and voices to put Zambia on the literary map but The Old Drift left me wanting a narrative that took on less but did more. With so many characters and so many incidents the story moves like a silt-laden river; it pools, it floods over, it stagnates. Still, Serpell is a writer to watch and I hope her future work will also keep pushing at national and creative boundaries.