Editor’s note: This review is intentionally spoiler free.
I’ve been thinking a lot about genre recently. Specifically what happens when ignore it, or tell it to sit politely in a corner with a biscuit while we tell stories larger than it. You’ll see that thread in each of the pieces this week. Giga is a story about what society looks like after its ended and which bonds truly matter. Camp Cretaceous is an externalization of adolescent trauma, given literal teeth. And It Snowed is a story about family, wrapped up in a semi-slow motion apocalyptic heist.
And The Old Drift is the story of the stories that make up a country and a history, across the personal, national and societal levels. Comedy, romance, horror, crime, science fiction. It’s almost a fire hose worth of concepts, conceits and glittering moments of invention and prose that approach overwhelming even as they impress.
But in Serpell’s hands, each of these stories and genre shifts presents more like the progression of a elaborate, interwoven symphony. The tale starts with a simple melody: a Victorian photographer entranced in equal proportion by the brave new worlds of his profession and of his newly chosen home. He’s cheery and unconcerned with the complexities of life in a way that’s both profoundly familiar (David Copperfield as science fiction Chosen One) and deeply unsettling and annoying. This isn’t his land, even though as time goes by he treats it like exactly that. That subtlest of cuts, that differentiation between character and reader is what Serpell uses to expand the novel out into a swelling crescendo across decades and genres.
The themes develop and interweave; three families pinballing off one another as the years pass. In their interactions and trajectories Serpell finds moments of grace and horror. Many of the former are provided by a pun-happy Mosquito chorus who don’t so much ground the book as gleefully comment on it. The latter come from the complex, untidy humanity of the protagonists, building the future they think they want even as the ground of the present shifts beneath their feet. It makes for some remarkable sequences, and the section exploring the Zambian Space Agency alone, drawn from fact, more than justifies time spent with the book.
But justification isn’t something we should be talking about with art. What we should be talking about instead is that this is a novel that’s African to its core. To quote Tade Thompson, “as African book of unarguable universality … something specifically Zambian and generally African at the same time”.
Unlike its photographer protagonist, you the reader keep the world at a respectful distance for the first few chapters. Like him, you’re drawn into it and its cast of people building lives, building a country and building a future. In turn, that future provides us with that rarest of commodities in 2020: hope. Not for a return to the status quo but to the arrival of something better. A future born not of the stereotypes of the past, but one born of humanity.
Complicated, untidy, brilliant, chaotic and happening all the time everywhere so much. It may not be the future some readers were expecting and it’s almost certainly not the “genre” you had in mind, but it’s doors are wide and welcomingly open and trust me, what’s inside is absolutely worth the journey.
The Old Drift is written by Namwali Serpell and is available now. This week it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. We recommend the Portal Bookshop for all your bookish needs.
This was originally published in the 25th September edition of my newsletter The Full Lid.