Zambia

READ THE WORLD – Zambia: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Narrated by Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

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.

I shall preface this review by saying it took me over two months to listen to this audiobook. Audiobooks are something I tend to listen to when I’m out and about and as I’m not going anywhere due to a pandemic it took me lot longer to read this book than normal. I think this probably did affect how much I enjoyed The Old Drift as it’s such a sprawling generational epic that I’d sometimes forget characters names between times I was listening or find it difficult to remember the different familial connections.

The Old Drift is a generational story, and it is interesting how three generations of three families can keep encountering one another in different ways and in different times. There’s romance and conflicts and just passing freak meetings, and often younger generations have no idea that their parents or grandparents may have met in some capacity before. Characters hear stories about things that as the reader you’ve already seen from someone else’s point of view and you realise that while some characters in these families might not meet themselves, they may have mutual friends or even passing strangers who have talked to them both at some point or another.

People in all three families go through love and loss, have children, and jobs and while there are universal struggles or life events The Old Drift does a good job at showing how their different backgrounds can have an effect on things. One family is descended from Italian immigrants/colonisers and one of their children then marries an Indian hairdresser. Another family is descended from a Black Zambian and a white English blind woman who ran away with her husband back to his home country. And the third family is Black, born and raised in Zambia. Due to their differences in wealth and education these families have very different lives and attitudes. One odd thing does connect them all and that’s hairdressers. A lot of the major life events for these characters happen in a hair salon or because of a hairdresser.

There’s a sci-fi element to The Old Drift I wasn’t expecting. As the story gets to the twenty-first century, there’s the technology we know, iPhones and drones for example, but then there’s advanced tech imbedded in people’s hands so they can use their had like a phone. It has a torch in a fingertip and their palm is a holographic touchscreen connected to the internet. It’s a bit jarring having these futuristic elements after previously appearing to be very true to the various periods of history these generations of characters have been living through – the AIDS epidemic plays a big role in many characters lives when the story gets to the 1980s.

There’s so much going on in The Old Drift that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who and how they’re connect, nevermind finding meaning and some sort of thread to follow through this story. Seeing events from different characters points of view, some more in depth than others, lets you see how different people react to events, how it can be a big deal for some and barely a memory for others, but this can get a little repetitive.

I’m really not sure what else to say about The Old Drift. It is an impressive debut novel and one a may have found easier to follow if I didn’t have such huge gaps between picking it up. There’s a lot of tragedy in these characters lives and maybe it’s because you only see snapshots of their lives at different times but there certainly seems to be more sad moments than happy ones. This, along with how long the book is and the often lyrical narrative, does make The Old Drift a bit dense and hard to get through.