The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Genre: surreal patchwork. ⭐️Stars from Goodreads: 3.8.  ⭐️Stars from me: 4 mainly but 1.5 for the final part.

About the book

Nothing about The Old Drift is simple. It’s so complex I couldn’t evaluate it with a standard 1-5 star system. There are many surreal stories and mystical characters. The storyline starts in Africa in 1903 and finishes in the future.

Why it is sometimes difficult to read

The Old Drift is an ultra marathon of a book. I mean not only the size but complexity. When you run an ultra marathon the conditions often change. Sometimes the process is fast and easy, sometimes you stumble and fall. Sometimes the path is barely visible so you have to slow down and watch every step. Sometimes you get lost and you have to trace your steps back. That’s exactly what reading The Old Drift feels like. Sometimes you catch the rhythm and go with the flow but very often you have to slow down or trace your steps back to understand what’s going on.

The writing

There are many Italian words or words from an African language (I don’t know which one, Google translated it as Swahili). The book provides no translation for them. You have to guess what they mean. Very often it’s not possible. Try it for yourself. These are actual quotes:

‘Mwashibukeni, Ba Lonode’, Ba George bowed his head fondly. ‘Eyamukwayi, bashikulu,’ Ronald panted. ‘Do you know where Miss Agnes is?’ ‘ Mm?’ The old man frowned. ‘Ah, mwelbantu, katwishi. I do not know.’

“When it rained it sounded like you were in a giant silimba. Loveness kept an mbaula outside, where she fried vitumbua to sell.”

I wasn’t sure what I’d just read. There’s lots of rare vocabulary, words like “tintinnabulary”, “mellifluous”, “recalcitrant”, “malapropism”, “fratricide”. I actually find it amazing that the author used a precise term for each situation but that’s why the book is sometimes hard to read.

The repetition of a phrase about teeth sucking gets really annoying. “She sucked her teeth”, “he sucked his teeth”, “their sucked their teeth”. This phrase is all over the book. Whenever someone gets worried, frustrated or angry they “suck their teeth”. My brain got a blister in the place where this phrase is processed.

The structure

The timeframe shifts between different years. Sometimes it goes forward, sometimes it goes backward. There’s no correlation between the characters and the years. No character belongs to a certain epoch. Instead one character appears in several different timeframes and then another one appears in a few other ones, and then the third one borrows a bit from both of the timeframes but also gets one of his own. You have to really focus to keep track on who’s in the spotlight right now and what’s going on. I wouldn’t call it a traditional saga where characters are linearly connected through generations. Most of the time the characters seem not to be connected at all.

Great things about the book

The writing

Even though the book is often hard to read the first 90 percent is unquestionably an amazing work of art. The way Namwali Serpell uses the language is unrepeatable and unique. One chapter completely blew my mind. The author combined two narratives in one piece of text. If you read the whole text you get a prose version of what happened. If you only read the parts written in italics it becomes a poem.

The events

Some of the described events did happen! Which is incredible taking into account how surreal they are. For example, the bizarre space program in Zambia.

This mix of surrealism and reality creates an effect where you can no longer distinguish between fiction and reality. That’s an interesting thing to experience. The book goes on this way for the first 90%. I have only one explanation for what happens after that – Namwali Serpell left her desk and someone else finished the book.

What went wrong in the end

Suddenly, I was no longer reading intricate prose about unusual characters. The book turned into a second-rate women’s fiction with sci-fi elements about futuristic revolutionaries.

Girlish chats about men and sex promptly appeared on the pages and the heroine started “admiring muscles of his back”.

As the mutations of the book progressed, my notes on it narrowed down to one phrase only: “WTF has happened to the book?!”

I was considering DNFing The Old Drift 97% into the book! The remaining three percent seemed like too much torture. I even counted how many clicks it took to cover one percent (it took 16 clicks)! I was counting the clicks left till the end of the book!

Final thoughts

I cannot come up with one definite conclusion about this book. It’s beautiful in some places and not so much in others. You might love The Old Drift or you might hate it. Most likely you’ll do both at the same time.

I’m very thankful to the publishers for providing me with a copy in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

4 thoughts on “The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I don’t think it will be universally loved, although, who knows. I am still not good at predicting such things. I think I’d recommend it to someone who’s looking for something … experimental? For those who want to try something very unusual and new. Otherwise, I think this book can puzzle quite a bit.

  1. I think you talked me out of this one. As have comments from others. Just doesn’t seem like one I’d enjoy. And for being that long, I need to enjoy it!

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