31 Oct / The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell [in Booklist]
Not far from the Zambezi River’s Victoria Falls, a fin-de-siècle colonial settlement called the Old Drift was the site of a loosely described “hotel,” where a colliding incident in 1904 combines the fates of three families originally Italian, British, would-be-Zambian – for a century-plus to come. Jump ahead 35 years to introduce the three “grandmothers” – hirsute Sibilla, who marries a husband with a murdered man’s name; blind Agnes, who abandons her privileged English life to follow her Zambian husband home; and precocious Matha, who might have been an astronaut, yet isn’t.
Three generations follow – living through the tumultuous decades of Zambia’s independence-making history, the families experiencing personal, societal, and political upheavals right into the near future, by which time nationalism has blurred and mere existence has become a major challenge.
Swazi British Richard E. Grant channels his own colonial African background as he practically growls through the preface-like first chapter as photographer Percy Clark, one of the epic’s three progenitors. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith regularly punctuates the recording as soothsayer, enthusiastically adding sound effects that peal, swoosh, and ding, leading up to the reveal of his “character” near book’s end. Adjoa Andoh commands the majority of the 25-hour narration, donning and discarding accents, genders, ages, and nationalities as a border-defying chameleon who adroitly gives voice to the women who refuse to be ignored, elided, erased.