I’m trying to read more African writers in 2020 so naturally I was intrigued with news of the novel The Old Drift, set in Zambia, and the writer’s name indicated that she might be a Zambian author – of whom, to the best of my knowledge, there are few. Plus the novel was recent, being published in 2019.
I have an antipathy to African novels that are merely a soapbox from which to thump the anti-colonialist drum. I prefer novels that tell an engrossing story, and do not club the reader to death with polemic. But Namwali Serpell avoided the pitfalls and certainly gave me my money’s worth in terms of a big, epic read.
The novel took many years to write, and given its sprawling time line over a century, charting the lives of three different families, I’m not surprised. Luckily there’s a Family Tree diagram at the beginning of the book, otherwise I would have been lost. The family lives cross, collide, combine and co-habit across the generations often with surprising – if not disastrous – results.
Namwali Serpell has painted a vivid picture of the development of the country Zambia, and its people, moving through straightforward history, followed by magical realism, a touch of speculative fiction, ending with elements of a thriller, and interjections by that ubiquitous African pest : the Anopheles mosquito, who philosophizes about man, nature, Africa, disease and a whole lot more besides. It’s a genre busting novel, but don’t let that put you off.
Reviewing it in The Guardian, Nadifa Mohamed wrote: “Namwali Serpell’s first novel is a rambunctious epic that traces the intertwined histories of three families over three generations. …Serpell is an ambitious and talented writer, with the chutzpah to work on a huge canvas.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zambia
The popular Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce has been showered with well deserved praise. What a good storyteller she is! She’s such a skilful writer that she manages to take three seriously flawed characters and combine them into a rich and unusual story, carrying the enchanted reader along into what really is a wildly improbable plot, but do we care? No, we do not, we breathlessly turn the pages: will Miss Benson find her Beetle? What will happen to Enid? And what of the damaged, tragic figure Mr Mundic, completely shattered after surviving a Japanese POW camp? Even Mundic has our sympathy. And there’s a rag-tag mongrel dog, named Mr Rawlings – irresistible! At this point (mid September) a strong contender for my Book of the Year.
The Old Drift – Namwali Serpell . A meaty read, a long and vivid saga of three families whose lives and loves form part of the growth of the Zambian nation. If you’re interested in modern day Africa, minus heavy politics and pious correctness, read the novel. I didn’t want it to end, so that signals a good read. Recommended.
Miss Benson’s Beetle – Rachel Joyce. A ten-star read. Beg, borrow or steal a copy. Not to be missed. A wild adventure story, featuring two mismatched English women, beetle hunting on the French island of New Caledonia, in the South Pacific. The book offers surprising emotional depth, alongside an unusual plot. I loved it. Highly recommended.
The Dutch House – Ann Patchett. I enjoyed the novel, which features a beautiful house and the family that owns it, but by the end I felt unsatisfied by the motivation behind the actions of some of the characters. That said, it’s a good read and currently very popular.
Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murukami. Wildly fantastical, surreal. I really liked the chubby female super-hero, with a fetish for the colour pink. Think Hello Kitty on steroids. Probably a novel best enjoyed by die hard Murukami fans.
The Cat’s Table – Michael Ondaatjie. Some years ago I roared through the novel in a big hurry, because it was a Book Club loan. I remember enjoying the account of the 21 day voyage from Sri Lanka to Southampton, because of my own childhood similar voyages. But second time around I appreciated the dark, shadowy understory that’s happening around the boys’ escapades, of which they’re (mostly) unaware. Later adult reflections reveal the entire story. Ondaatjie is such a good writer. Definitely worth the re-read.
The Choice – Edith Eger. A powerful, harrowing memoir of a 17 year old girl who survives a year in Auschwitz, then post-war Europe, then emigration to the USA in 1949. Astonishingly she succeeds in qualifying as a clinical psychologist, surviving a challenging marriage, and eventually coming to terms with her own past. What a book, what a woman! Recommended.