The Old Drift
By Namwali Serpell, Hogarth, 576 pages, £16.99
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.
The novel is divided into parts that follow matrilineal inheritances — grandmothers, daughters, granddaughters — but we begin with a grandfather, Percy Clark, an itinerant British photographer ekeing out a living near Victoria Falls at the turn of the 20th century. Percy is the type of man who refers to “Merrie Old England” and gives “natives” a wallop when necessary. The hardscrabble, alcohol-soaked world he inhabits is well drawn and realistically evoked, but as a character he seems oddly flat, a pastiche of a pith-helmeted colonial brute. In fact, throughout the book, while the Zambezi surges and floods and glides, the humans drift, both narratively and in terms of their characterisation. When we move to Italy and meet the first of the grandmothers, Sibilla, we are so overwhelmed by an infinitude of descriptions, mostly of the long, uncontrollable hair that covers her body, that the paragraphs become more thicket-like than the black veil shrouding her limbs.
Influenced by both the magical realist tradition that encompasses Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass and Salman Rushdie and the “hysterical realism” identified by critic James Wood in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, The Old Drift presents an opportunity to play with Zambian history in a fresh, creative way. However, it often gets bogged down in whimsy and improbable happenstance. And while some of Serpell’s images work beautifully —soapsuds that pile up like “ornate lace” — the characters can seem like marionettes with little spirit of their own.
The book is set primarily in Zambia, but it is not until nearly 90 pages in that we meet a substantial Zambian character. Africans are first seen through the eyes of Europeans, and called every racial epithet possible, until black student Ronald arrives in England and falls in love with the granddaughter of Percy Clark. Confronted by the unsurprising bigotry of her family, they decide to flee to Zambia and return to a country on the brink of change in the early 1960s.
This moment of transition is interesting but the pace of the novel means that we trot beside the action, eager to keep up. The section set around the Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy is a good place for the reader to catch their breath. Based on the real, largely unknown project cooked up by Edward Makuka Nkoloso in the 1960s, it follows his attempts to send a young woman, Matha Mwambwa, to the moon, along with two cats. The Old Drift stays true to this history, down to the names of the “Afronauts” involved and their training techniques — an oil drum and a tyre swing were used to simulate weightlessness in space. This is a charming and surreal tale that could fill a whole novel, but here it is just one among many narrative high jinks.
Matha leaves the space programme pregnant with her first child and falls into despondency, crying her life away. Her daughter Sylvia is gifted with a tougher spirit and after a youth spent in sex work establishes herself as a hairdresser, where she tends to the now silvery full-body hair of Sibilla. A quirk in Sylvia’s blood and genetic code is what pushes the novel into its third, Afrofuturistic part; a near-future of smart technology, medical drones and new vaccines.
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.
Nadifa Mohamed’s The Orchard of Lost Souls is published by Simon & Schuster.