Book Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell | 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist #5

This post is a part of my 2020 Arthur C. Clarke reading project where I will be reading and reviewing all the nominated titles. You can found out my thoughts about this project in my introduction post: 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist: Thoughts, Predictions & Reading Project.

Genre : Literary Fiction, Magical Realism, Science Fiction

Publisher : Hogarth

Length : 576 pages

Format : eBook

Rating : 3.5 stars (?)

Publication Date : March 26th 2019

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION

On the banks of the Zambezi River, a few miles from the majestic Victoria Falls, there was once a colonial settlement called The Old Drift. Here begins the epic story of a small African nation, told by a mysterious swarm-like chorus that calls itself man’s greatest nemesis. The tale? A playful panorama of history, fairytale, romance and science fiction. The moral? To err is human.

In 1904, in a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives – their triumphs, errors, losses and hopes – form a symphony about what it means to be human. 

From a woman covered with hair and another plagued with endless tears, to forbidden love affairs and fiery political ones, to homegrown technological marvels like Afronauts, microdrones and viral vaccines – this gripping, unforgettable novel sweeps over the years and the globe, subverting expectations along the way. Exploding with color and energy, The Old Drift is a testament to our yearning to create and cross borders, and a meditation on the slow, grand passage of time. 

BOOK REVIEW

In 1904, Peter M. Clark, an Englishman living in a colonial settlement on the banks of the Zambezi river, makes a mistake. And this mistake entangles the life of three families for more than a century, intertwining the lives of their descendants during the birth and rise of Zambia.

The novel is fragmented into three parts and each part is divided into chapters that each follow a member of one family. Some parts are magical, others are very much rooted in reality. The book opens up with the stories of a woman covered in hair, a woman who cannot stop crying and a blind woman who can see with her body. It ends with high tech microdrones and a potential HIV vaccine. While some aspects are speculative, Serpell does a fantastic job at putting Zambia and Zambian people at the heart of the story (or stories!).

I’ve never read something quite like The Old Drift. In about 600 pages, Serpell tells the story of the three families while cramming all the thoughts she has about… everything. I can’t think of a theme she doesn’t explore, The Old Drift as it all: colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism, ableism, religion, marxism, motherhood, love, poverty, sex work, scientific research and ethics.

However, it doesn’t just explore themes, it also plays with genres. It starts off as a fantastical tale, morphs into a historical novel and evolves into a science fiction work. The prose is gorgeous and the project is ambitious. The Old Drift, even when set in the near future, is the story of Zambia. Throughout the story, Serpell presents the country in all its different facets. From its creation where a bunch of white dudes drew borders with a ruler, to its time as a colony, then as a member of the Federation, as an independent state to a country influenced by neocolonialism.

The Old Drift is a love letter to Zambia and Zambian people. It shows how different Zambians are from one another yet, how proud they are of their roots and their country. I didn’t know a lot about Zambia and this epic novel taught me a lot. For example, I had no clue that Zambia had a space program (??) and also, while I was aware that China owned a lot of lands in the country, I didn’t realize the influence had over Zambia.

While the content of the book is fascinating, it also helps that the prose is sharp and beautiful. I highlighted so many quotes while reading that it was hard to showcase just a few of them but, read this:

This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it begins, of course, with a white man.

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

So simple, so elegant, yet so true.

Neither Oriental nor Occidental, but accidental is this nation.

THE OLD DRIFT BY NAMWALI SERPELL

*Chief’s kiss*

‘You’ve seen the SAC clinics? They’re giving out free beta vaccines for The Virus’

‘Better than what?’ Jacob frowned.

‘No beta. You know like alpha beta delta?’ said Joseph. ‘A beta version means a trial’

‘Beta version’ Naila scoffed. ‘They should just say black version. They’re testing it on us’

THE OLD DRIFT BY NAMWALI SERPELL

Again, such a simple way to put it yet, it says a lot about scientifical research, ethics and people’s thoughts on the matter in just a few lines. Brilliant.

However, while I admire Serpell’s vision and I found the writing superb, some elements didn’t work for me. With a novel this ambitious, it’s not that surprising. The thing is, the elements that disappointed me the most were the reason I read the book in the first place… the science fiction bits. The first two parts were amazing but, as soon as the story turned into near future science fiction, it lost me.

I won’t go into details because it would spoil the book but, about two thirds into the story, new technology is introduced and it leads to a paradigm shift for Zambia. This could have been used brilliantly but, sadly, the whole thing was rushed and under-explored. Characters that were so carefully crafted in the first two parts suddenly became flat and almost cartoonish. I wouldn’t have cared as much about the characterization if the speculative elements had been explored better but, unfortunately, the last part was a bit of a let down on both aspects.

However, The Old Drift is Serpell’s debut novel and while it fails in some things, it does others brilliantly so, I can’t help but to admire the ambition and the scope of the story. For the most part, it was a great literary fiction book and I would be keen on reading Serpell’s future work. I just don’t think The Old Drift is a good science fiction book, and that’s okay.

(Though I do appreciate the fact that Serpell herself qualify the last part of the story as SF. A lot of literary fiction authors avoid by all means to qualify any of their works as genre fiction in fear that people won’t take them seriously. I can appreciate when authors don’t try to hide where they draw the inspiration from when they write their books, but, that’s a discussion for another day.)

I don’t think The Old Drift should win the Clarke, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. If you like beautiful prose and clever writing, you should definitely give it a try. I think it’s a book that should be read by many, just not for the SF elements.

I know I’m being self-indulgent but, hey, it’s my review so here’s another quote:

During his time at university, Ronald had learned that ‘history’ was the world the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure.

THE OLD DRIFT BY NAMWALI SERPELL

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

To be honest, I probably shouldn’t rate this but, for the sake of the project, I did. The first two parts were five stars for me, but, the last part was lacking so I tried to rate the book in a way that would represent that.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell | 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist #5

  1. …the best thing about book awards really is how many books we can find that we wouldn’t have known about/read otherwise
    Anyway, this sounds interesting! Loved the quotes. I know very little about literary-adjacent science fiction and I’d like to change that. (And I agree, one of the reasons it’s not as easy to find or know about is that many of those who write it don’t want a genre fiction label…)

    Liked by 1 person

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