“The Old Drift,” Zambian writer Namwali Serpell’s debut novel, begins in earnest with a feverish kind of mimicry. The narrator is Percy M. Clark, a British photographer in northwestern Rhodesia (now part of Zambia). He admits to having been beguiled by “that African wonder named for an English queen,” Victoria Falls.
He’s also on a mission to follow the Zambezi River to the coast and shoot more than photographs — “the land abounded in game, from the stately eland to the tiny oribi.”
He eventually lands at the Old Drift, a riverine settlement of about a half-dozen white men in 1903 near the Falls. The place, he says with bravado and disgust, “was a right swamp, filled with mosquitoes humming like a German band.”
It’s not difficult to conclude that Clark’s narrative must be a form of parody, with its brash humor and condescending tone, drawn from the journals of Victorian-era explorers. And when the mosquitoes make their second debut as energetic and sagacious narrators, Serpell marks her writerly territory: playful yet still seriously engaged, her imagination largely unfettered.
In a novel that spans the breadth of Zambia’s precolonial past to its digital future, Serpell’s unbound imagination is often a thing of beauty. Her multigenerational cast of characters cuts across race, gender and class. Their lives unfold in three long sections, each devoted to a generation and bookended by the mighty Zambezi.
The grandmothers come first — Sibilla, a lovely woman born in the countryside of warring Italy with “long, dark, sticky swirls of hair all over her body,” and then Agnes, a blind former tennis pro from England in the waning years of colonial influence. Clark, we discover, was her grandfather. A third grandmother is named Matha, a Bemba “afronaut” whose early life becomes entwined with Edward Mukuka Nkosolo, a guerrilla fighter and an impassioned agitator for the first Zambians to land on the moon.
All women must contend with a physical “ailment,” surreal or somewhat incapacitating; in Matha’s case, it’s endless weeping.
The lives of these women are bound in tenuous ways at first, although they all end up in Zambia with children who become parents themselves of bright, multiracial children in a country hurling toward technological innovation and political stagnation.
Serpell’s range of focus is too inexhaustible, although it is in the familial space with its dramas of loves, betrayals, desires and dreams that she excels. Her Zambian characters are especially brimming and compelling.
In a nod to Leo Tolstoy, she eventually offers her readers a lovely kernel of an overarching theme that binds her characters across the passage of time and encapsulates her confident writing style: “Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.”
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based critic and fiction writer.
The Old Drift
By: Namwali Serpell.
Publisher: Hogarth, 566 pages, $28.