“The Old Drift” by Namwali Serpell is based on the tried and true concept of a cast of seemingly unrelated characters that, at some point in time, encounter each other in varying degrees of intimacy. In spite of this lack of ingenuity, “The Old Drift” still manages to capture readers with its colorful depiction of life in Zambia, through the eyes of three different families spanning over a century of history.
The story begins with a colonial explorer, Percy Clark, in Africa, stomping through the wild the way only a rich white man in the 1890s could do. Serpell uses Percy’s life as a way of establishing the cultural background for the story, as well as highlighting the racial tensions that are expected from any kind of conquest-minded history.
“The Old Drift” strikes a difficult balance — race is obviously an important part of anyone’s identity and often shapes characters and readers alike, but it should not be the defining characteristic of any one person. In the race for diversity, we too often see authors reinventing their characters as an afterthought in order to appeal to a “broader” audience. Yet, even though the consequences of race are prominent throughout “The Old Drift,” Serpell creates characters whose existence doesn’t hinge solely upon their racial struggles.
Though “The Old Drift” retains a heavily heteronormative group of characters, Serpell deftly explores a variety of family dynamics. The benefit of following the same three families over a vast number of decades is that we can see how a marriage changes and evolves over time: Agnes and Ronald lose their passion, Matha’s parents are separated by political beliefs and Sibilla loses sight of the Frederico she once knew. It’s a cynical depiction of love — each couple is plagued by doubts and hardships, making it some small wonder any of them manage to stay together as their love dwindles. As someone who is heavily invested in YA novels and happy endings, I found each couple’s successive downfall a little depressing.
That twinge of sadness on the edge of each story, whether a lost dream or broken couple, helps Serpell suspend “The Old Drift” in a balanced world between sci-fi and historical fiction. Many of the plot obstacles that arise are rooted in Zambia’s political turmoil of the ’70s, showcasing the lasting effects of dreams unfollowed. As the book progresses, and more characters meet each other, these repercussions are explored further with Serpell dropping hints and consequences into each storyline.
“The Old Drift” doesn’t just stay in the past, though. Serpell creates and explores a future that carries with it many familiar worries, including climate change (dubbed “The Change”) and excessive government monitoring through technology. Her tactic is interesting: Serpell has created a world in the early 2020s, a not-so-distant future that still manages to be as foreign as if she were to set it 200 years into the future. It’s a world poised just on the cusp of familiarity, highlighting the disasters and leaders at the root of an apocalyptic future, leaving the reader with a trace of the nervous energy of what could be.