The Old Drift

Written by Namwali Serpell
Review by Marina Maxwell

Some novels are almost impossible to summarize in a few paragraphs, and this is one of them. After a conventional opening chapter, the remainder of the book is largely experimental literary narrative, complete with magic realism and even futuristic fiction.

The opening sets the scene in the early 20th century when Percy Clark, a white pioneer of what was Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), takes up residence at a drift (ford) on the Zambezi River. While he is deluded due to fever, he accidentally pulls out the hair of an Italian waiter at the nearby Victoria Falls Hotel. This propels us into a second chapter, which is a knotty tangle in more ways than one, and features Sibilla, who is covered in hair that never stops growing. And then we leap forward to Agnes, a blind white woman in love with an African academic at a time when such an interracial union would have been fraught with many problems, practical as well as social, and it fails to be convincing in any way. Another chapter takes us into the realms of outer space and, weird as it seems, would have been inspired by real plans in the 1960s for Zambian astronauts.

Knowledge of the country’s origins and politics will help one to appreciate certain real-life individuals, facts and expressions of language, but if you know little about Zambia and are hoping for a cross-cultural family saga that might enlighten you as to its character and development over the past century, you won’t find it here. Also, with chapters that are linked by a buzzing commentary from a swarm of mosquitoes, any historical anachronisms hardly matter.

Not for everyone, but if you are prepared for a lengthy and innovative reading challenge you may find this an interesting experience.