Just a couple of books again this week… but at least one of them was worth it.
The Old Drift (2019) by Namwali Serpell
I chose this novel for three reasons without having read anything about the book or its author:
1. The cover. Look at it! It’s gorgeous!
2. There was a good chance I could use this book for my Reading Around the World challenge.
3. I read the first couple of pages in a preview and it was a fantastic and irreverent telling of the history of the colonisation of Zambia beginning the story with the death of David Livingstone as described by a swarm of mosquitos.
As it turned out, the mosquitos serve as a form of Greek chorus throughout the book. Their cynical yet straight-to-the-point commentary to the individual stories that tell us the story of Zambia through three generations adds both critical assessments and fun to the story. I loved this element. Are the mosquitos trustworthy – no. But neither are they the outright villains of the story of colonisation.
The rest of the plot meanders from Percy Clark’s (real person) narrative of arriving in Northern Rhodesia and spewing racism of his time through the next generations to a time set in the future that tells of the fate of the nation in a world that has ignored climate change.
The individual stories again are great, too. Some are novel with unexpected turns, some are entirely expected, showing the exploitation of people in different circumstances. I loved the way that I got a real sense of time from the way the individual characters behave and talk to each other. From the Italian setting in the 1930s to the description of the youngest generation discussion divided opinions about whether it was right that Oxford students demand the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes overlooking Oxford High Street from Oriel College.
I also loved the way that Serpell dealt with the question of nationalism and tribalism, which really already started with the inclusion of incomers from Britain and elsewhere, and the inevitable mixing of people over the various generations to a future where they all see themselves as belonging to each other. In various ways, I was much reminded of Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Women, Other with the portrayal of the relationships between the characters. Some of these relationships are not apparent from the the start. It took some time to get used to jumping from one character to the seemingly unrelated next one, but by the end of the book it is very clear how one life touches another.
Lastly, I also liked that Serpell included a storyline that dealt with the AIDS epidemic and the search for a cure. It was both interesting and actually provided a lot of suspense throughout the latter half of the book. It was also a great description of how science can be blind and how individuals who should know better are still capable acting stupidly.
There is so much in this book that kept me thinking and kept me reading, and overall this book is an amazing debut novel.
So, why would I rate the book only 4*?
The main reason is that the book seriously meanders. I get it. Like the mighty Zambesi River, the different contributories take different paths to converge into one, and so do the individual stories. Even the poetic Mosquito Chorus comment on this – the story drifts, because our lives drift. It’s another interpretation of the meaning of the Old Drift. However, the meandering made me consider to DNF the book a couple of times during the first half. It’s only really in the second half of the book that the story really comes together. And I may have rated the story lower than 4* had it not been for the Mosquito Chorus making me think for a couple of days about the structure of the book, the different messages, and the way that the author takes on difficult topics and still ends up with a hopeful ending to the story.
Death of My Aunt (1929) by C.H.B. Kitchin
This book had lingered on my kindle for ages. I am sure I bought it at the same time as Kitchin’s Crime at Christmas, but as this was a disappointing read, I have just had no inclination to read Death of My Aunt. I only read it last week because I wanted to remove it from my TBR while giving Kitchin another chance.
Sadly, I have come to the end of the road with this author and his stockbroker main character who turns amateur sleuth to exonerate himself and his uncle from the suspicion of having murdered the eponymous aunt.
This was just a flat mystery with nothing to hook me. By the end of the book, I didn’t even care about the who, how, why of the death. I just needed the book to end.
2*. Not for me.
Other reviews posted this week:
The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works – William Shakespeare (see The Will’s World Project)
Lady Joker, Vol. 1 – Kaoru Takamura
The Breaking Point – Daphne Du Maurier
Rebel Writers: Seven Women Who Changed Their World – Celia Brayfield
Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman – Lucy Worsley