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The Old Drift

A Novel
Length: 24 hrs and 59 mins
4 out of 5 stars (83 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

An electrifying debut from the winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African writing, The Old Drift is the Great Zambian Novel you didn’t know you were waiting for.

On the banks of the Zambezi River, a few miles from the majestic Victoria Falls, there is a colonial settlement called The Old Drift. In a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives - their triumphs, errors, losses, and hopes -  emerge through a panorama of history, fairytale, romance and science fiction.

From a woman covered with hair and another plagued with endless tears, to forbidden love affairs and fiery political ones, to homegrown technological marvels like Afronauts, microdrones, and viral vaccines, this gripping, unforgettable novel is a testament to our yearning to create and cross borders, and a meditation on the slow, grand passage of time.

Praise for The Old Drift

“An intimate, brainy, gleaming epic.... This is a dazzling book, as ambitious as any first novel published this decade.” (Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“A founding epic in the vein of Virgil’s Aeneid...though in its sprawling size, its flavor of picaresque comedy and its fusion of family lore with national politics it more resembles Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.” (The Wall Street Journal) 

“A story that intertwines strangers into families, which we'll follow for a century, magic into everyday moments, and the story of a nation, Zambia.” (NPR) 

©2019 Namwali Serpell (P)2019 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Recalling the work of Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez as a sometimes magical, sometimes horrifically real portrait of a place, Serpell’s novel goes into the future of the 2020s, when the various plot threads come together in a startling conclusion. Intricately imagined, brilliantly constructed, and staggering in its scope, this is an astonishing novel." (Publishers Weekly)

"In this smartly composed epic, magical realism and science fiction interweave with authentic history, and the ‘colour bar,’ the importance of female education, and the consequences of technological change figure strongly. It’s also a unique immigration story showing how people from elsewhere are enfolded into the country’s fabric… Serpell’s novel is absorbing, occasionally strange, and entrenched in Zambian culture - in all, an unforgettable original." (Booklist, starred review) 

“Comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable and likely warranted. But this novel's generous spirit, sensory richness, and visionary heft make it almost unique among magical realist epics.” (Kirkus, starred review)

“Three multicultural families' pasts and presents, told by a swarming chorus of voices, culminate in a tale as mysterious as it is timeless...This stunning cross-genre debut draws on Zambian history and...reinforces the far-flung exploration of humanity.” (Library Journal, starred) 

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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Full Five Star Vivid, Affecting Saga


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.

I cannot imagine 10 fiction or nonfiction books will be published this year that are better. A must for literati: it will most certainly be a finalist or be short-listed later this year for the Man Booker, the Natl Book Award, etc.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Saga of 3 families in Zambia over a century

I loved this book about the history of Zambia told through the lives of 3 interconnected families, one black,one white, one brown.
There are memorable characters, a bit of magical realism, relationships and reconnections over 3 generations. I had to go back to the first chapter to read the setup of 3 family relationship that occurs due to a ferocious child of one family.

The Reader has an incredible ability to take on many African and European accents and though there were zillions of Zambians, each had their own cadence and personality. I had listened to a Angela Carter novel read by the same actor. She was 100 times more enjoyable on this adventure. She seems to choose wondrous , character-laden romps to narrate.

I highly recommend this book . Its worth every moment.

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Supreme narration of an epic African saga.

Amazing. A narrative triumph! A book to listen to more than once both for the story and the voices.

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Maybe the author was overly ambitious?

The Old Drift is a multi-part saga. The story and writing hang together well in the first two parts, but then things get very messy in the third part. Too bad as the character development and plots and sub-plots are engrossing . Part 3 reads more like vignettes than the type of tight and effective story-telling in the first two parts.

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Listened to it 2x in a row

Loved the language, loved the narrators. Seldom got bogged down in 25 hours of listening.

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Worth listening twice!

SO much going on here, I feel like I only absorbed a tiny bit of what's there to be gleaned. I will definitely dive in again. Excellent narration as well.

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Afrofuturism meets familial tragedy

This is a a great book. I listened to the audiobook and it was very entertaining and engaging. The story is complex and engaging. It intertwines Zambian history with three generations of three different families.

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Disappointed

I couldn’t get through this book soooo slow.
One of the few that I just couldn’t finish

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On Par with the Greats

This was a slow rollercoaster of a story, with amazing performances that really brought the characters to life. It's a little of every kind of story.

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Modern masterpiece

So much to like about the book. Against the historical backdrop of Zambia, Serpell weaves together 3 families and propels them into a dystopian future. The Narrator was excellent.