The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell – Reader Witch

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

About the book

Nothing about The Old Drift is easy. It’s so complex that I couldn’t rate it using a standard 1-5 star system. There are many surreal stories and mystical characters. The story begins in Africa in 1903 and ends in the future.

Why it’s hard to read at times

The Old Drift is an ultra-marathon of a book. I don’t just mean the size, but also the complexity. When you run an ultra marathon, conditions change frequently. Sometimes the process is quick and easy, sometimes you trip and fall. Sometimes the path is barely visible so you have to slow down and watch every step. Sometimes you get lost and have to retrace your steps. This is exactly how it feels to read The Old Drift. Sometimes you catch the rhythm and go with the flow, but very often you have to slow down or retrace your steps to understand what is going on.

The writing

There are a lot of Italian words or words from an African language (I don’t know which one, Google translated it as Swahili). The book does not provide a translation for them. You have to guess what they mean. Very often it is not possible. Try it. These are actual quotes:

‘Mwashibukeni, Ba Lonode’, Ba George lowered his head affectionately. “Eyamukwayi, Bashikulu,” gasped Ronald. “Do you know where Miss Agnes is?” “Mm?” The old man frowned. ‘Ah, mwelbantu, katwishi. I dont know.’

“When it rained, it sounded like you were in a huge silimba. Loveness kept a mbaula outside where it was roasting Vitumbua for sale. “

I wasn’t sure what I had just read. There are many rare vocabulary, words like “shade”, “fragrant”, “unruly”, “malapropism”, “fratricide”. I actually find it amazing that the author used an exact term for every situation, but that makes the book difficult to read at times.

Repeating a sentence about vacuuming teeth gets really annoying. “She sucked on her teeth”, “he sucked on his teeth”, “they sucked on her teeth”. This phrase is everywhere in the book. When someone becomes worried, frustrated, or angry, they “suck their teeth”. My brain has a bubble where this sentence is processed.

The structure

The time frame changes between different years. Sometimes it goes forward, sometimes it goes backwards. There is no correlation between characters and years. No character belongs to a particular era. Instead, one character appears in several different timeframes and another in a few others, and then the third borrows a little from both timeframes but also gets their own. You really need to focus to keep track of who’s in the spotlight right now and what’s going on. I wouldn’t call it a traditional saga where characters are linearly linked across generations. Most of the time, the characters don’t seem to be connected at all.

Great things about the book

The writing

While the book is often difficult to read, the first 90 percent is undoubtedly an amazing work of art. The way Namwali Serpell uses the language is unrepeatable and unique. One chapter totally blew me away. The author combined two stories in one text. Reading all of this will give you a prose version of what happened. Just reading the italicized parts will turn into a poem.

The events

Some of the events described happened! Which is incredible when you consider how surreal they are. For example the bizarre space program in Zambia.

This mixture of surrealism and reality creates an effect in which one can no longer distinguish between fiction and reality. That’s an interesting thing to experience. The book goes this route for the first 90%. I only have one explanation for what happened afterwards – Namwali Serpell left her desk and someone else finished the book.

What went wrong in the end

Suddenly I stopped reading complicated prose about unusual characters. The book became a second-rate women’s literature with science fiction elements about futuristic revolutionaries.

Girlish chats about men and sex promptly appeared on the pages, and the heroine began to “admire the muscles of his back.”

As the book’s mutations progressed, my notes were limited to just one sentence: “WTF happened to the book ?!”

I was considering including 97% DNFing The Old Drift in the book! The remaining three percent appeared to be too much torture. I even counted how many clicks it took to cover one percent (it took 16 clicks)! I counted the remaining clicks until the end of the book!

Final thoughts

I cannot draw a definite conclusion about this book. It’s beautiful in some places and less so in others. You might love The Old Drift or you might hate it. Most likely, you will be running both at the same time.

I am very grateful to the editors for providing me with a copy in exchange for my honest and unbiased evaluation.

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