Namwali Serpell’s THE OLD DRIFT

9781781090503This amazing novel is set in Zambia over two centuries and follows three generations from three families whose lives become coiled together. Namwali Serpell’s debut is not just genre defying but genre encompassing; part-fairy tale, part-historical epic, it is a tragic love story and cutting edge science fiction. This book literally has it all. With echoes of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Richard Powers’ The Overstory this sweeping, drifting story is a perfect commentary on the 21st Century and all its failings including those still to come.

The story is broken into three parts; The Grandmothers, The Mothers and The Children. We meet a young Italian couple who escape war ravaged Italy, an unusual family curse and a murder to flee to Zambia to build a new life. A blind English woman falls in love with a Zambezian student and elopes with him to Africa. And a young woman gets swept up in Zambia’s independence movement and its space program. The story follows the next generation as the threads of these three families begin to weave more closely together. A young woman turns her family’s curse into a gift, a prostitute turned hair salon owner and a young doctor who begins research to find a vaccine for the HIV epidemic sweeping the continent. And then finally the third generation who are almost inseparable and two may even be related; the doctor’s son determined to carry on his father’s work, a multi-talented junkyard engineer and a new generation of revolutionary striving for different type of independence.

Interspersed between each story is an aside from a swarm of mosquitoes. An omnipresent witness to the whole story. They’ve been here long before the story began and will remain long after it finishes. They observe the novel’s characters and chart their journeys toward each other. They tutter at each generation’s mistakes and laugh at their so-called achievements.

This is a book that carries you away. The language is inventive, playful and has bite. It is a wonderful historical novel that deals with colonialism, family ties and genetics but doesn’t conform to a set timeline or set conventions, jumping forwards and backwards as it suits the story and its characters. This is a book that captures your heart, your mind and your imagination before leaving you both satisfied and aching for more at its brilliant conclusion.


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