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book review

A heartbreaking epic of staggering creativity in Zambia

Be prepared because this is a big book in all senses. Clocking in at a whomping 566 pages it sprawls over a century and overflows with staggering brilliance. In this wonderfully chaotic epic, Namwali Serpell invites us into an indelible world that’s part history, part sci-fi, totally political, and often as heartbreaking as it is weirdly hilarious.

Divided into three parts, “The Grandmothers,’’ “The Mothers,’’ and “The Children,’’ Serpell’s debut is a female-powered tale of three intertwined Zambian families who struggle through early white colonialism, African revolution, and the uncertainties of the future, all filled with as much riotous color and sound as an outdoor bazaar. And oh yes, part of it is narrated by a mysterious chorus of virus-carrying insects, whose commentary drives the story like a Greek chorus.

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The book begins in 1904 with a white Englishman, Percy M. Clark, who wanders into a settlement near Victoria Falls called Old Drift, consisting of about a half dozen white cronies, who soon upset the order, paving the way for more white colonialists. Natives are whipped; illness spreads; and poverty is rampant. Housing is segregated, with Italians and British on top of a hill, the Africans mistreated on the bottom. The white man’s mission is to build the biggest dam on the Zambezi River, something the native population does not want — as the insect chorus whines, “You cannot contain the manifold fury of a people, a river, a woman!”

We soon see the Zambian families, white and black, emerging and converging over time and territory. In Italy, Sibilla runs to Africa to be with her servant mother and is ruined by love. Matha, the granddaughter of the victim of an assault (somehow linked to Percy himself), tries to rise above her station in the space program of the newly independent Zambia. Instead of firing up rockets, however, she burns with activism. Percy’s granddaughter Agnes, in England in the 1960s, is blind, white, and privileged, and she falls in love with Ronald, an exchange student, who unknown to her, is black. The two escape European racism by fleeing to Africa. In the later part of the novel, Agnes’s son Lionel falls for Matha’s daughter, and it’s Naila, Sibilla’s radical granddaughter, who tightens the connections even more.

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Serpell unfolds in thrilling detail how the Africans fight back, win self-government, and replace the British flag for the Zambian one. This does not mean the political situation resolves or that all residents are even remotely free. There are two viruses going on, and Serpell nimbly connects them: one, a vicious, deadly fever and the other, the destructive scourge of racism. In fact, when a vaccine becomes available, the white population rejects it, fearing it may turn their pale skins dark — something worse than death.

Though busy with plot, and virtually hurtling to its conclusion in a sweep of history and mystery, “The Old Drift’’ is also very much about character, especially the uber-ambitious men and the extraordinary women, who are the real stars. Early on, we meet Sibilla, who has hair that never stops growing — or making other things grow. We suffer along with Agnes, who goes blind, and weep for Matha, whose heart is broken and who cries for generations. These women fall madly into love, are betrayed, and keep moving forward, handing down resilience to their children and grandchildren, who pick up the threads, mix the races, disappear, reappear, and reconnect as noisily as bumper cars.

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The writing is gorgeous and fiercely attuned to magical realism. Thandi, one of the children, says that marriage makes her feel “like there was something empty and frenzied in her chest, a bee in a tin cup.” The insects are like “a script of equations — commas and dashes, full stops and slashes — the way math looks in a dream.” The story world is majestic and at times, terrible, from Victoria Falls, where the spray can be seen and felt 30 miles away, to the cacophony of insects, from scorpions to spiders to the mosquitoes who share their world with humans.

In “The Old Drift,’’ British colonialism does indeed fall to African revolution and the birth of a nation sorrowfully rests on the death of so many. But this is a book that asks whether people can grow immune to racism the way they might to a deadly virus. Will tolerance come? Will this great land be conquered? The land is a character in itself (in fact, speaks): “ ‘Come,’ it beckoned. ‘Go!’ it boomed.”

The last generation, the grandchildren of the grandmothers, use what they’ve inherited to fight for a better world and to heal both the nation and its people. Who can know what might come next? It’s not always clear, especially in a world where tiny microdrones armed with antidotes look and act like the very insects that spread disease. Who can know? Still, even though “The Old Drift’’ is a little overstuffed, a little too long, it has the feel of a fairy tale, and it pulls you into its strange magic with page after ambitious page.

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THE OLD DRIFT

By Namwali Serpell

Hogarth, 566 pp., $28

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Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel is “Cruel Beautiful World.’’