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The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Vintage, 2019, 574 p.

The Clarke Award (whose 2020 version this novel won) has a history of recognising, and sometimes rewarding, novels which are only marginally SF. At first sight this novel seems to be of that ilk – resolutely realist in tone, albeit with the occasional magic realist flourish, almost family saga in form (there is even a family tree facing the contents page,) while incorporating the history of Zambia and white colonialism in Southern Africa in its purview. Only in its later sections does it stray into SF territory and that in a way which non-SF readers may find jarring. To British eyes the text is a curious mixture of British – bum (as in backside,) maths – and US – fit as a past tense, swim lessons (swimming lessons,) mowed down (mown down) – usages, but there is also a generous sprinkling of Zambian words.

The novel is bookended by two short sections, The Falls – “The Smoke That Thunders” which David Livingstone of course immediately named after Queen Victoria – and The Dam (the Kariba Dam,) but the main body of the book is taken up by incidents in the lives of “The Grandmothers,” “The Mothers” and “The Children,” to each of whom a section, though not always exclusively, is devoted. (In The Falls we are told that Livingstone’s attendants transported his body to the coast – and thence to England – not out of devotion or duty to him, but rather from fear that otherwise his death would have been blamed on them. The explicit racism of European colonisers in Africa is expressed in some of the words used.) Intermissions between the sections, rendered in italics and occasionally commenting on the text, are written as if by anopheles mosquitoes. In one of these interludes we are told that “evolution forged the entirety of life using only one tool: the mistake…”

The Grandmothers are Sibilla, whose hair grows uncontrollably – all over her body, Agnes, a promising English tennis player who had to give up the game when she became blind and who falls in love with Ronald, a black student come to England from Rhodesia (as was,) and therefore has to run away from her racist parents in order to marry him, and Matha, one of the participants in Zambia’s unofficial space programme (an aspirational effort the concept of one individual, Ba Nkoloso, without any of the resources nor capability necessary to succeed.) Pregnant, and told Godfrey has left her, Matha begins to weep unceasingly, her eyelids crusting over with salt, an affliction which lasts the major part of her life thereafter.

Of the Mothers, Sylvia is Matha’s daughter by Godfrey, one of her fellow Afronauts, Isabella the result of Sibilla’s union with Federico, forced to flee Italy after killing his brother but usurping his identity, and Thandiwe marries Agnes’s son Lionel (who also impregnates Sylvia.) The Children are Joseph and Jacob (the ensuing sons of Lionel’s two unions) while Naila is the child of Isabella’s marriage to Balaji, a shopkeeper of Indian sub-continental origin. Sibilla’s children inherit her hair-growing condition – but only at twice the usual rate and only on their heads. This is transformed into a family wig-making enterprise known as Lovely Luxe Locks Ltd.

There is a nice exchange between Agnes and Ronald when he asks, “‘But I thought the English hated the French,’” and she replies, ‘Oh we do, but we steal from them mercilessly. It’s our sort of thing,’” a comment on the perennial position of women when we are told Matha thinks, “She had never imagined that to be a woman was always, somehow, to be a banishable witch,” and a rumination on the myths countries tell themselves, “This sort of thing happens with nations, and tales, and humans, and signs. You go hunting for a source, some ur-word or symbol and suddenly the path splits…. Where you sought an origin, you find a vast babble which is also a silence.” We also have Serpell’s variation on Tolstoy, “Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.”

The main Science-Fictional ingredient in the tale is the Digit-All Bead, a kind of iPhone embedded in a finger which utilises the skin’s conductivity as a power source and shines its information onto the palm – or elsewhere if needed. This invention, since it appears in the book’s 2000s, makes The Old Drift an Altered History. Digit-All had been savvy in calling their product a bead rather than a chip as it sounds less threatening. They then partnered with local governments to distribute their beads free. Its connection to the internet makes it the ultimate surveillance tool. Another SF-ish element is Jacob’s development of lightweight microdrones – to all intents and purposes technological mosquitoes.

Hanging over the characters in the later sections is a pathogen only ever named as The Virus (which the reader will naturally take to be HIV but may not be. It does have HIV-like characteristics, though.) Lionel is researching a way to immunise against it and is particularly inteeested in people who seem to have natural immunity. Two human mutations are likely candidates. The person he calls the Lusaka patient has both. Serpell compares the Virus’s modus operandi – infiltrating the immune system’s white blood cells (usually the body’s defenders) to reproduce itself – to its main means of transmission, sex, “it takes advantage of the two engines of life – the desire to reproduce and the will to persevere.”

Serpell undoubtedly can write and has an eye for the variety of human relationships. I am not entirely convinced, though, that the later sections and the novel’s conversion into a subdued kind of technological thriller really belong together with the earlier character-based narratives but as an attempt to render the (relatively) recent history of Zambia in fictional form by focusing on the lives of individuals The Old Drift is still a formidable achievement. I have no doubt that it will linger in my mind.

Pedant’s corner:- “The hair on her crown and face were the same” (was the same,) sprung (sprang,) “irked Agnes to no end” (irked Agnes no end; ‘to no end’ means without purpose, ‘no end’ means without limit,) Cadbury Whole Nut (in Britain it always used to be “Cadbury’s” but I note that they have recently dropped the apostrophe and its ‘s’,) Walkers shortbread (Walker’s,) “to secret her to Kasama” (that’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘secret’ as a verb, it appeared as such once more,) wracked (racked,) stunk (stank,) “because was it was” (one ‘was’ too many,) grills (grilles,) “turning those minuses into plusses” (‘pluses’; and in any case why put a double ‘s’ in plusses but not in minusses?)

Clarke Award 2020

I seem to be a few months late in noticing this. I couldn’t have been looking hard enough, though I posted the shortlist here.

The winner was The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell.

It’s on my tbr pile. I’ll probably shift it up the list now.

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