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The Old Drift

3.75  ·  Rating details ·  5,778 ratings  ·  1,053 reviews
A Zambian debut novel that follows three generations of three families, telling the story of a nation, and of the grand sweep of time

On the banks of the Zambezi River, a few miles from the majestic Victoria Falls, there was once a colonial settlement called The Old Drift. Here begins the story of a small African nation, told by a swarm-like chorus that calls itself man
Hardcover, 576 pages
Published March 21st 2019 by Hogarth
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Average rating 3.75  · 
Rating details
 ·  5,778 ratings  ·  1,053 reviews

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Sonja Arlow
Jan 25, 2019 rated it really liked it

The book is full of juxtapositions.

British colonialism vs African revolutionaries, 3rd world poverty vs high tech drones, beautiful powerful writing vs meaningless ramblings.

I really enjoyed some of the true historic events the author weaved into the story. I travelled to Zambia about 5 years ago and read up about its history but nowhere was it stated that Zambia had its own space program in the 1960’s. A revolutionary, Edward Nkolose headed up the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Rese
Apr 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Damn-busting 5 stars!!

A superb saga surveying 3 generations of intertwining families as they migrate or marry the indigenous and assimilate into Zambia. Highly affecting (almost to shock and awe with its denouement) and brimming with vibrant characters, without an ounce of romanticizing or sentimentalities.

If you trust my reviews, you should believe me when I HOLLER that it exceeds all the hype. I cannot imagine 10 fiction or nonfiction books will be published this year that are better.

A must f
Apr 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
Historical fiction (based on The Autobiography of an Old Drifter by Percy M. Clark 1874-1937). Surrealism involving a woman with massive amounts of hair, a woman who cries nonstop, and a blind tennis player. An ancient Greek chorus in the form of mosquitoes. And science fiction in the form of miniature drones. Zambian author Serpell includes all of this in her richly written, multigenerational novel.

The bulk of the story feels as if it is being observed from the vantage point of the Old Drift ov
Lark Benobi
Jul 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Sentence by sentence Serpell is an excellent prose stylist, and I enjoyed reading this novel very much. The scenes are evocative. The dialogue frequently dazzled me with its sharpness and its ability to cut straight to the bone and tell me how to think about a given character.

For me, though, I missed a through-line. I missed a unifying theme. I have no idea what the book's about.

The novel is almost perversely disinterested in giving meaning to the lives of its characters. It's not interested i
Apr 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
As a debut novel The Old Drift is quite extraordinary. It’s aim seems high and, to my eye, it meets what are its likely goals. This is a tale of Zambia, a combination of historical fiction, with smatterings of historical moments, mythical episodes and characters bordering on, but not quite, fantasy, and elements of science fiction as the story ends in the near future. It opens in colonial times and Stanley Livingstone is introduced early on as Victoria Falls becomes a major feature during the su ...more
May 29, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“...’history’ was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.” This book is part family saga/part history of a country, with a smattering of fantasy and science fiction mixed in. It begins in 1903, when the adventurer Percy M. Clark arrives at the settlement known as The Old Drift and follows the d ...more
David Berkowitz
May 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the most phenomenal works of fiction I’ve read - or at least listened to, and I had to do so twice, partly to pick up on so many threads I missed, and partly for the enjoyment of Serpell’s use of language and original storytelling. This is a masterpiece, a tale that feels both ancient and futuristic.
Jan 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Old Drift is an epic novel bursting with the lives of three interwoven families in three generations. The novel hops and races around at dazzling pace - covering Zambian politics, history, AIDS, sexuality and oh yes - it is set partially in the future. I grew to care for the characters - especially the women. So much here - it is a goldmine of a novel.
When the publisher's blurb says it's the great Zambian novel you didn't know you were waiting for, it's spot on. It is a generation-spanning novel that mainly takes place in Zambia, a landlocked Central African country nestled beneath the Congo and east of Zimbabwe. It traces the history of Zambian society from Colonial times in the late 1800's as the British and Italians explored a new frontier, built dams, and escaped their own crowded cities to a new uncharted world, through Independence, to ...more
3.5 stars
The Old Drift is a prodigious undertaking both in scope and time span. Set in Rhodesia/Zambia from 1903 to 2023, The Old Drift starts off as a historical fiction and ends as a futuristic parable. It is a generational tale that is as much about what makes a nation as what makes a family.

In this debut novel Serpell addresses colorism, class differences, gender politics and revolution. She draws the reader's attention to the meek and disenfranchised while questioning the definition of pro
Dawn Michelle
This book was absolutely NOT for me. At all.
First, it is told in short story form; each chapter being a different story with a different family, starting with "The Grandmothers". By the time you get to section 2, you have forgotten who belongs to whom and that just continues as the story progresses. And by the time you get to the [VERY unsatisfying] end, you just forget who everyone is and just what the story is all about. And you end the story very very confused and are left with a million que
Jul 13, 2022 rated it really liked it
A novel based principally in Zambia (with a few excursions). I initially thought this was a historical novel, but the fact that it won the Arthur C Clarke award means I should have realised science fiction was involved as well. It is also multi-generational, covering well over one hundred years. The first narrator is an Englishman, the real life Percy Clarke who set up a souvenir shop at the Victoria Falls in 1903. Three intertwined families are involved. The grandmothers Sibilla, Agnes and Math ...more
Liz Murray
I loved this book and it had me up late on more than one night. It is dense but highly engaging. It covers a span of almost two centuries and follows the entwining lives of three families living in Zambia and the region.
I saw Namwali Serpell speak the day after I was up late finishing the book and the questions that were asked and the responses she gave added dimension to my reading. I'll say again that is a long book but I don't think anything was out of place and nothing could be edited out.
Jun 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.

This is a beautifully written epic tale spanning many countries, genres and families. The author spend more than two decades writing this story which spans more than a century, focusing on the lives of three families over three generations, interconnecting in Zambia.

The exquisite writing had me hooked from page one, and I liked the "chorus" sections which is written in the collective voice of a swarm of mosquitoes, which reads like poetr
Nadine in California
Jun 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I think long and hard before I read a looong novel these days - too often there's a perfectly good 300 page book trapped in a 600 page body. Not here! I was an enthused, immersed reader from start to finish. The way the novel is divided into sections and subsections keeps it moving (it's not a ponderous epic) and although the story is told chronologically, it sometimes does a cha-cha with small bits of time - two steps forward, one step back, that reveals quirks and coincidences in a clever way. ...more
K.J. Charles
A big-sweep magical realist novel set in Zambia from Rhodesia days to the near post climate change future, following three family lines down three generations till they meet. There is a lot going on here as well as the many characters: colonialism, racism, poverty, misogyny, abuse, the curse of uteruses (I've never seen so many characters have on page periods), technology, surveillance, revolution. Plus a Greek chorus of mosquitoes, unless they're drones, and recurring themes of hair and eyes.

Katia N
Jul 03, 2019 rated it liked it
I picked this book as I’ve read somewhere it was compared to Cloud Atlas. And I am big fan of that novel, especially for its brilliantly controlled structure and experiments with the language styles. This book is nothing of a kind. On the contrary, I think its structure has just sprouted organically from the writing it contains. It is not a problem per se, but it is not the novel to read for the structure or the style. It is quite readable (well at least until the last bit, more about it later). ...more
Melissa Crytzer Fry
The lyrical, lush prose and remarkable sensory language in this novel placed me firmly in Zambia, which hooked me right out the gate. In the first section, I was fascinated by the character of Sibilla, with her continually growing hair (hypertrichosis) and also by Agnes, who loses her vision. And I think the mosquitoes, who also have a narrative voice in this story, were my favorite characters.

But I have to admit my interest began to wane three characters in -- with Matha -- which is to say that
May 25, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I started this review yesterday and found myself going the wrong way, revealing too much information, and mentioning quibbles rather than lauding the author for her effort and accomplishment. This was one of the books I most anticipated when I first looked the offerings to come for 2019. I was not disappointed, though the novel was somewhat different than I expected. Serpell has attempted to write the great Zambian novel, from British colonial origins, to present, and even extending as speculati ...more
Apr 17, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A woman covered, head to toe, in long flowing hair. A young tennis prodigy who succumbs to blindness. A woman unable to stop crying. Intriguing, yes? Truly memorable characters and the matriarchs of the three families - one white, one black and one mixed race - that are at the core of Namwali Serpell’s ambitious, sprawling, multigenerational novel that traces the history of Zambia. Serpell is a gifted storyteller, in fact this is very much like a novel of linked stories, looking at each family a ...more
Apr 27, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars
The Old Drift brings together the story of a Zambian family, beginning deep in the family tree, before any relation had been established between them all. The story weaves through multiple generations, with each chapter focusing on a single member of the family. The story is wide-ranging, and shows the many facets of Zambian life, and explores what it means to be a Zambian.

Before I dive into the reasons why I didn't enjoy this book so much, I will start with the positive. Serpell's wr
4.5 stars rounded up.

Zambia is a fascinating country; I was lucky that I got the chance of visiting it back in 2017 for work and would jump at the opportunity to do it again. When I found out about this book, it was instantly a must-read, and being a Clarke Award winner is a bonus.

This is a magnificent family saga spanning for at least three generations, from the so-called discovery of Victoria Falls to 2023. The author put A LOT of things here: colonialism, racism/colorism, mixed marriages, fo
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
3.5 stars

This is a big, ambitious book, very much itself rather than the latest imitator in a well-established genre, which in a way makes it hard to criticize, because could it be different while still accomplishing what the author was trying to do? And I’m glad to have read it even though I enjoyed some parts much more than others. But it’s definitely not for every reader, and there are a couple elements that concern me.

When I say big book, I mean both in terms of word count—those 566 pages ar
Inderjit Sanghera
Apr 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
'The Old Drift' charts the history of Zambia from when it was nothing more than an idea in the mind of various intrepid colonialists its future as a state which has long left behind the trappings of modernity, yet still feels entrapped in the inequities created by colonialism. Serpell's Marquezesque narrative style coupled with her poetic depiction of Zambia, from its arboreal splendours to the all encompassing metropolises which seem to spring from the air, lend an epic feel to the story, as Se ...more
Joy D
“I set out for the drift five miles above the Falls, the port of entry into North-western Rhodesia. The Zambesi is at its deepest and narrowest here for hundreds of miles, so it’s the handiest spot for ‘drifting’ a body across. At first it was called Sekute’s Drift after a chief of the Leya. Then it was Clarke’s Drift, after the first white settler, whom I soon met. No one knows when it became The Old Drift.”

Multigenerational family saga that takes place from 1903 to 2023 in Zambia. It starts ou
May 13, 2019 rated it liked it
About multiple generations of three families whose lives intersect intimately eventually through colonial times into Zambian independence, and eventually into the future of technological warfare, this book did a lot of things. There was the generational component, as mentioned above, and this included Black Zambians, coloured Zambians, and European immigrants. The book had elements of magical realism. It had contemporary reflections on neocolonialism and medical experimentation on Black bodies. ...more
Kasa Cotugno
Apr 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Epic in style, scope and material, The Old Drift presents Zambia, and by extension, the effects of colonization versus native population and personality. Each of the characters rings true, and some are actually based on actual people, but Namwali Serpell has done a masterwork for her debut novel. The writing is lush, the imagery sensual with much attention given to sensory effect and strong characterization that delineates the large cast. Highly recommended despite its huge size.
Mar 31, 2021 rated it liked it
I loved the first 2 parts of this book. It would have been a solid 4 star read for me if only the last part Children didn't happen. It ruined this story for me. ...more
This is a true pot-pourri of a novel. There is a 20th Century historical saga of three generations of women. There is a potted history of Zambia mixing real with fictitious people/events. There is some speculative fiction, magic realism with a woman who is covered with hair that grows inches everyday and a woman who can't stop crying. There is an interesting mix of races in the grandmothers - a blind Englishwoman who marries a Zambian, an Italian who comes with her husband to build a dam and a l ...more
Bill Khaemba
An ambitious project that encapsulates the convergence of three Zambian families through the colonial period to the current day and way into the future. My enjoyment came in waves, what dampened the experience was the length, I think it's too long. Still, an impressive book that requires lots of patience. ...more
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NAMWALI SERPELL is a Zambian writer who teaches at UC Berkeley. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award in 2011 and was selected for the Africa 39 in 2014. She won the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing.

THE OLD DRIFT is her first novel. The chapter entitled "The Falls" is derived from The Autobiography of An Old Drifter, by the historical figure, Percy M. Clark (1874-1937).


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186 likes · 18 comments
“During his time at university, Ronald had learned that 'history' was the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.” 6 likes
“Matha had never considered that being female would thwart her so, that it would be a hurdle she had to jump every time she wanted to learn something: to read a book, to shout the answers, to make a bomb, to love a man, to fight for freedom.” 3 likes
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