> Skip to content
  • Published: 31 March 2020
  • ISBN: 9781784703998
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 576
  • RRP: $19.99

The Old Drift

Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2020




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 and the launch of a thrilling new talent

Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2020'The great African novel of the twenty-first century' Tade ThompsonOn the banks of the Zambezi River, a few miles from the majestic Victoria Falls, there was once a colonial settlement called The Old Drift.

In 1904, 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 his fate with those of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy.

So begins a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond.

'Extraordinary, ambitious, evocative, dazzling' Salman Rushdie

'Brilliant . . . heartbreaking' Sunday Times

'Electric . . . Serpell is a major talent' Financial Times'Charming, heartbreaking and breathtaking' Carmen Maria Machado

Longlisted for the Debut Crown Historical Writers Association Award 2019Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize 2019

  • Published: 31 March 2020
  • ISBN: 9781784703998
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 576
  • RRP: $19.99

About the author

Namwali Serpell

NAMWALI SERPELL is a Zambian writer who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award for women writers in 2011 and was selected for the Africa 39, a 2014 Hay Festival project to identify the best African writers under 40. Her first published story, 'Muzungu', was selected for The Best American Short Stories 2009 and shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize for African writing. She won the 2015 Caine Prize for her story 'The Sack'. The Old Drift is her first novel.

Praise for The Old Drift

Extraordinary, ambitious, evocativeThe Old Drift is an impressive book, ranging skillfully between historical and science fiction, shifting gears between political argument, psychological realism and rich fabulism…a dazzling debut, establishing Namwali Serpell as a writer on the world stage

Salman Rushdie, New York Times Book Review

Brilliant...there are moments of such heart-wrenching poignancy that I had to put the book down several times and recompose myself. Serpell writes with the emotional maturity and sardonic smile of one who has lived several times already

Leaf Arbuthnot, Sunday Times

An intimate, brainy, gleaming epic... The reader who picks up The Old Drift is likely to be more than simply impressed. This is a dazzling book, as ambitious as any first novel published this decade. It made the skin on the back of my neck prickle...she’s such a generous writer. The people and the ideas in The Old Drift, like dervishes, are set whirling

Dwight Garner, New York Times

From the poetry and subtle humor constantly alive in its language, to the cast of fulsome characters that defy simple categorization, The Old Drift is a novel that satisfies on all levels. Namwali Serpell excels in creating portraits of resilience—each unique and often heartbreaking. In The Old Drift the individual struggle is cast against a world of shifting principles and politics, and Serpell captures the quicksand nature of a nation’s roiling change with exacting precision. My only regret is that once begun, I reached the end all too soon

Alice Sebold

An impressive first novelThe Old Drift is electric with the sense that Serpell is laying down pieces in a puzzle kept teasingly out of sight... A growing sense that The Old Drift could go on for ever is tribute to its inventiveness

Anthony Cummins, Observer

Brilliantly inventive

Joyce Carol Oates, Times Literary Supplement

It’s difficult to think of another novel that is at once so sweepingly ambitious and so intricately patterned, delivering the pleasures of saga and poetry in equal measure. The Old Drift is an endlessly innovative, voraciously brilliant book, and Namwali Serpell is among the most distinctive and exciting writers to emerge in years

Garth Greenwell

A vast, ambitious and polyphonous debut novel by a writer whose criticism and short stories I’ve admired for years

Robert Macfarlane, Big Issue, *Books of the Year*

This mesmerizing début novel tells the history of Zambia through three families whose lives—and blood—commingle across more than a century. The narrative is long and dense, but it rarely drags, thanks to Serpell’s eclectic blending of literary traditions, from the Victorian novel to magical realism and Afrofuturism. The revolving cast is full of striking characters... Serpell’s master storytelling may provide a remedy to a problem remarked on by one character: that “most Westerners don’t even know whereabouts in Africa we are.”

New Yorker

an intimate, brainy, gleaming epic

New York Times

Namwali Serpell’s vibrant, intellectually rich debut novel, The Old Drift, is in keeping in that tradition, and like any good nation-hoovering novel, it too refuses to conform to expectations… This oddball cast of characters simply represents the joys of the picaresque novel, in which the author’s set design is intentionally surreal and ironic… Serpell is a natural social novelist, capable of conjuring a Dickensian range of characters with a painterly eye for detail

Washington Post

An astonishing novel, a riot for the senses, filled with the music and scents and sensations of Zambia. Namwali Serpell writes about people, land and longing with such compassionate humour and precision, there’s an old wisdom in these pages. In short, make room on your shelf next to a few of your other favourites: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tsisi Dangarembga and Edwidge Danticat jump to mind. It’s brilliant. This woman was born to write!

Alexandra Fuller

In turn charming, heartbreaking, and breathtaking, The Old Drift is a staggeringly ambitious, genre-busting multigenerational saga with moxie for days... I wanted it to go on forever. A worthy heir to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude

Carmen Maria Machado

Stunning...grappling with grandiose, complex notions, funneled through a kind of worldly knowledge and historical curiosity — all of which is ultimately grounded in an attention to the interiors of individual lives... Serpell’s vision has made The Old Drift among the most buzzed-about books of the year. It is perhaps not enough to say that the novel is audacious for being a debut in the form of a near 600-page multigenerational epic...the work is already being compared to both canonical and modern classics — Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

San Francisco Chronicle

This is a founding epic in the vein of Virgil’s Aeneid, which provides the book’s epigraph, 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

Wall Street Journal

The Old Drift is a stunning achievement: a novel of epic scope and powerful vision that also manages to be intimate, tender, and very funny. A truly important debut from a brilliant new voice

Fiona McFarlane

The Old Drift is an extraordinary meditation on identity, the history of a nation, love, politics, family, friendship and life. Serpell's prose is dazzling. Darting back and forth through the decades and mixing different genres, Namwali has delivered an original, remarkable, magical work that both delights and challenges

Chika Unigwe

The Old Drift is a dazzling genre-bender of a novel, an astonishing historical and futuristic feat, a page-turner with a plot that consistently and cleverly upends itself. Playfully poetic and outright serious at once, it is one of the most intelligent debuts I’ve read this year. No matter your reading preference, there’s something in it for you

Chinelo Okparanta

If, as she writes, "history is the annals of the bully on the playground" then in The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell wreaks havoc on the Zambian annals by rewriting the past, creating a new present, and conjuring an alternative future. In refusing to be bound by genre, Serpell is audacious and shrewd. This is a Zambian history of pain and exploitation, trial and error, and hope and triumph

Jennifer Makumbi

A rambunctious epic… Serpell is an ambitious and talented writer, with the chutzpah to work on a huge canvas…a writer to watch

Nadifa Mohamed, Guardian

Monumental and powerful... The Old Drift is a novel that will leave you reeling and picking apart its many ideas, leaving almost no concept unexplored – whether that’s colonialism, capitalism, racial identity, political identity, climate change or government surveillance... Its ultimate hook though is Serpell’s awe-inspiring deftness at jumping from one location, time and character to the next, and fixing you firmly in each and every one. It’s a decidedly impressive debut

Kim Evans, Culturefly

Funny, inventive and propulsive

Tadzio Koelb, Times Literary Supplement

Namwali Serpell’s electric debut novel The Old Drift is richly satisfying in its storytelling and ambition… Sweeping but also playful, Serpell as a major talent

Financial Times, *Summer book 2019: critics' pick'

One of my favourite books for many, many years, it's complex and beautiful

Sarah Jessica Parker, Sunday Telegraph

Full of magic, history, and humor, The Old Drift will be unlike anything you’ve ever read

Buzzfeed

Serpell expertly weaves in a preponderance of themes, issues, and history, including Zambia’s independence, the AIDS epidemic, white supremacy, patriarchy, familial legacy, and the infinite variations of lust and love. 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

Publisher’s Weekly, starred review

Namwali Serpell’s spellbinding debut is worth the investment

Joanne Finney, Good Housekeeping

The Old Drift is an astounding novel… inventive and powerful–it is also surprisingly funny and plays brilliantly with language… beautiful, rewarding and thought-provoking

Esme Choonara, Socialist Worker

An original, poetic novel from an already award-winning writer is one of the year’s most anticipated debuts

Marta Bausells, ELLE

An impressive book that demands your attention, and rewards your commitment with a beautifully told, richly evocative tale

Will Salmon, SFX

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

A mastery of language, a deftness in description, and a dip into surrealist and speculative elements makes The Old Drift a worthwhile study in holding together several storylines through the characterization of those searching for their calling, and the cost of those pursuits

Electric Literature

This inventive first novel by Serpell, a Caine Prize winner, spans two centuries in Zambian history, mixing styles from Gothic to Afrofuturist

BBC

I recommend Namwali Serpell's 2019 Zambian tour de force The Old Drift. This is a long book – all 563 pages of it – by a writer whose prose and outsize imagination will hold you spellbound throughout

Conversation UK

Related titles