The Old Drift is an epic debut novel by Namwali Serpell a Zambian national based in the United States. Published March 26, 2019 by Hogarth Press The Old Drift won the 2020 Arthur C. Clark Award for Science Fiction.
The Old Drift
The Old Drift is an intergenerational tale sweeping close to two centuries and three generations of families. The story is narrated by a chorus of mosquitoes:
Neither gods nor ghosts nor spirits nor sprites, we’re the effect of an elementary principle: with enough time, a swarm will evolve a conscience.
The plot unfolds in a somewhat linear way beginning in the 1900s with the arrival of one Percy M. Clark to the Victoria Falls…
History was the word 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.
….and then we are introduced to the grandmothers, the mothers and finally the children and how all the characters are intertwined in a convoluted thread of destiny
This multi-genre narrative reads part like a historical fiction, part fantasy, part science fiction and Afrofuturism. I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading it but I had my mind blown in a way reminiscent of when I read Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga and also David Mitchel’s Cloud Atlas and could even imagine it getting a motion picture adaptation directed and produced by the Wachowskis.
Namwali blends facts, reality and fiction to give a tale, which although has the usual disclaimer that its a work of fiction, gives a riveting mixed-genre account of history and a multi-themed tale. To quote Tade Thompson upon announcing Namwali as winner for the 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award
I was reading something I didn’t know I was missing…. Namwali Serpell has created something specifically Zambian and generally African at the same time. THE OLD DRIFT is everything fiction should be, and everything those of us who write should aspire to.
I would not call it an easy read, and keeping track of the characters across the generations could get quite tricky. Even though I tried to make notes of the family trees I would at times forget about a character, out of sight and out of mind only to be shocked when I realised I hadn’t noticed their reappearance or had missed making the connection until a few lines later.
That it had to end at all; The Old Drift has the markings of a never-ending story and so the ending felt, abrupt, unresolved, drifting….
Also the racism portrayed in the early chapters, was some tough going, I suppose it was a reflection of the times. In the Acknowledgement section Namwali references that “The Falls” chapter borrows heavily from Percy M. Clark’s The Autobiography of an Old Drifter – all racism his.
The Old Drift is a very bold and ambitious debut novel that pushes boundaries and delivers an unforgettable experience.. To cover up the void finishing the book has left, I am busy researching trying to separate the fact from the fiction.