The Old Drift

The Old Drift is a novel that spans more than 100 years and spread over four generations from 1874 to 2024. This debut novel of Namwali Serpell has a sense of everything our world has to offer. Serpell was born in Zambia and later moved with her family to the US. Presently, she is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and teaches literature. 

Set in Zambia, The Old Drift is gleaming epic, brainy, and an intimate story of three families and their fate across four generations. It is a beautiful fusion of historical fiction with Afro-futurism and magical realism.

The tumultuous ups and downs of these families and their respective countries have been beautifully studied. The plot is pivoting enough as it starts from the white colonizers of the region and pushes itself to the future where bug-sized micro-drones are put into totalitarian uses.  

The Old Drift – Characterization

Serpell’s mosquitoes in The Old Drift are not at all amused by the wriggling humans. They imply that mosquitoes existed long before humans came in, and they will be there long after humans are gone. 

The most peculiar of characters of The Old Drift is Sibilla, who is born to an Iranian hotelier. Married to a civil engineer, she comes to know how bureaucracy, politics, banality, and dishonesty go hand-in-hand with the West. Agnes is another essential character who, in the latter part, gets interested in Zambian politics. She tries to show how Zambians are much habituated by westerners taking benefit from them. 

Serpell never seems to show partiality as the story moves forward into the present and beyond. She is in her imaginative world, where she talks about a vaccine for the deadly AIDS disease and does accept the unforeseen consequences. She balanced it well by dividing it between two half-brothers, one of whom is researching a cure for AIDS and the other who is working on the improvement of micro-drone technology.

The marginalization of women by forcing into prostitution and suffering from AIDS is depicted as if every family was at war. The only difference being some were more civilized than others. 

Serpell filled her novel with almost everything. There are references to biology, politics, sex, menstruation, subjugation, tennis, race, car crashes, and so on. The magical realism of her work can be witnessed from the way she portrays her characters. On the one hand, a woman is shown crying rivers literally; on the other hand, there is this woman whose entire body is covered with hair and keeps on growing few feet every day. She never depicts her men or women as cutie pies, nor does she believe in charming her followers to death. Most of her characters are one-dimensional and hard-hitting.

After an overwhelming read of 550 pages, the reader is sure to find it breathtaking. It will never come to mind how many pages you have turned, that’s the magic of this novel. It is more about people who used Africa for their profit and about people who suffered because of it. 

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