Namwali Serpell, winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing, released her debut novel The Old Drift in 2019, and became one of eight winners of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize in March 2020, receiving $165,000 in the process. Reacting to her win, she said: ‘I’m absolutely thrilled to receive this award and honoured to join the company of these esteemed writers. The Windham-Campbell Prize has proven unique in celebrating writing in Africa based solely on its literary achievement; it’s deeply gratifying to be taken seriously as an artist.’ So far, The Old Drift has been longlisted for the Debut Crown Historical Writers Association Award 2019 and for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize 2019.
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.
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 his fate with those of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy.
So begins a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond.
The Old Drift is one of those books that comes with its own bag of intimidation – not just because of its sheer size of over 500 pages, but also because of the praise and accolades it has accumulated since its publication. This is why I approached this book with high expectations, and I can confidently say that I was not left disappointed.
I listened to the audiobook version of the book and I believe that hearing the stories within this centuries-spanning novel in their oral version really enhanced my experience.
The first half of The Old Drift was definitely my favourite part, as I found Serpell’s criticism of European settlers / colonisers in Africa, and their general attitudes towards Africa(ns), to be at its sharpest. Her sly sarcasm and often undiluted critique of Western stereotypes (of Africans) made for a great addition to the already engaging and gradually unfolding stories of the unique characters.
The story’s denouement is at once electric, engaging, gripping, and unexpected. Serpell’s narration skills shine throughout the novel, but especially so within the first 200 pages, as she slowly and cunningly reveals all the pieces of this large and magnificent intercontinental puzzle that makes up The Old Drift.
This is one of those books that became a personal favourite within the first 100 pages. I enjoyed its African narration-style and feel, and I also really liked how Serpell managed to mix the individual stories of the characters with sharp social, historical and political criticism. Serpell’s intelligent disregard for genres or ‘traditional’ conventions, albeit slightly startling at times, worked really well overall and added a unique layer to the novel. The structural set-up of the book reflects Serpell’s re-imagining of the past and future of Zambia, and the ways in which African history may have been written or indeed, could be [re]written in the future.
The Old Drift is a novel that deserves readers with the intellectual capacity to let the text and the stories unfold before them, without allowing preconceived notions (about what storytelling and writing should be like) to get in the way. I think this is one of those books that readers will either love or hate. I, for one, have loved it and am planning to re-read it more than once, because I’m almost certain that I missed out on at least a few hints, twists, and underlying commentary the first time around. And even when I read it for the third time, I’ll probably still stumble upon something that I somehow managed to miss the first two times.
This book is Awesome (with a capital A). It is sad in many ways, but even then, it is unmistakably Awesome.