Early in Namwali Serpell’s brilliant and many-layered debut novel, a turn-of-the-century British colonialist named Percy Clark wanders through the corner of what was then called Northwest Rhodesia (and is now the nation of Zambia) and complains: “I do seem plagued by the unpunishable crimes of others.” It is, in a sense, a fitting slogan for the many ruinous aftereffects of colonialism, except here it is spoken by an agent and beneficiary of the colonizer.
So begins The Old Drift, an expansive yet intricate novel that bends, inverts and at times ignores conventions of time and place. Part historical fiction, part futurism, part fantasy, Serpell’s hundred-year saga of three families and their intertwined fortunes is as unique as it is ambitious. And in just about every way, it succeeds.
The story begins in 1904, when an unlikely incident (Percy accidentally rips a patch of hair off another man’s head) sets off a chain of events that reverberates through the decades. From there, Serpell introduces a cast of characters that ranges from the everyday to the fantastical. The book chronicles the interwoven lives of three families, cast against the creation of Zambia itself.
There is a timeless quality to Serpell’s storytelling—or perhaps a sense that her novel moves almost independent of time. What starts as a story steeped in real colonial history eventually moves into the present and beyond—an invented near-future. In clumsier hands this complex, sprawling, century-spanning book might have easily folded in on itself, a victim of its scale and scope. Instead, The Old Drift holds together, its many strands diverging and converging in strange but undeniable rhythm.
It’s difficult not to pigeonhole the novel into a particular literary school—namely, that of the descendants of Gabriel García Márquez and the magical realists. Less than 100 pages into the story, for example, the reader meets a girl covered head to toe in hair. Another character cries endless tears. There are, throughout the book, myriad moments in which Serpell utilizes the improbable, the impossible, the unreal, to get at something profoundly human. And for all the ways it subverts and reinvents convention, The Old Drift is a very human book, deeply concerned with that most virulent strain of history: the unpunishable crimes of others.