The Old Drift

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The Old Drift
First edition
AuthorNamwali Serpell
GenreHistorical fiction, Science fiction
Set inRhodesia, Zambia 1903 - 2023
PublisherHogarth Press
Publication date
March 21, 2019
Media typePrint (hardcover and paperback), audiobook, e-book

The Old Drift is a 2019 historical fiction and science fiction novel by Zambian author Namwali Serpell. Set in Rhodesia/Zambia, it is Serpell's debut novel and follows the lives of three interwoven families in three generations.[1][2] It won the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award[3] as well as the Arthur C. Clarke Award.[4]


The novel is a saga that follows three families: one Zambian, one Italian, and one Indian. These families are intertwined by the actions of the novel's first narrator, Percy M. Clark,[5] who is based on a real man from Cambridge, England, who moved to Zambia (then Rhodesia) in the early 20th century as one of Europe's many colonists across the African continent. In the novel's first chapter, Percy details some of his encounters as an early settler in The Old Drift, a settlement near Victoria Falls. He details the settlement's changing name, its growing population, and his racist views of the native Zambians. On one such occasion, Percy's actions at a bar one night cause a young girl to strike a young Zambian boy so hard that "he became an imbecile, forever smiling at the daisies," as Percy says. This Zambian boy reappears when Percy accidentally shoots him one day, and later learns that his name is N'gulubu. This series of events is the cause behind the intertwining of the families, which is slowly revealed through the rest of the novel as Serpell details the lives of the family members on the family tree: the Grandmothers (Sibilla, Agnes, and Matha), the Mothers (Sylvia, Isabella, and Thandiwe), and their Children (Joseph, Jacob, and Naila).


The book received positive reviews from critics.[6] Reviewing it in The Guardian, Nadifa Mohamed wrote: "Namwali Serpell’s first novel is a rambunctious epic that traces the intertwined histories of three families over three generations. …Serpell is an ambitious and talented writer, with the chutzpah to work on a huge canvas."[7] The Observer's review concluded, "By the end, set in a near future involving a new digital device embedded in the user’s skin, we realise how slyly Serpell is testing our assumptions, before a cunning last-minute swerve forces us to question why we don’t consider science fiction a viable mode for the great African novel."[8]

In The Old Drift, Serpell experiments with different forms of narrative in order to help readers view the story from different viewpoints. NPR's Annalisa Quinn called Serpell's narrative style "florid, but the excess often comes with a point. These are indeed three ways humans think about space: As something legible and predictive, as a resource to exploit, and as a source of beauty and awe. You also get the sense that the descriptive excess is a conscious choice".[9]



  1. ^ "The Old Drift". Retrieved 2021-08-22.
  2. ^ Garner, Dwight (2019-03-25). "'The Old Drift' Is a Dazzling Debut Spanning Four Generations". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-08-22.
  3. ^ a b "Namwali Serpell Wins the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Award for The Old Drift". Brittle Paper. 2020-04-04. Retrieved 2021-08-22.
  4. ^ a b "'The great African novel of the 21st century': Namwali Serpell wins Arthur C Clarke award". the Guardian. 2020-09-23. Retrieved 2021-08-22.
  5. ^ "Percy Missen Clark – Rhodesian Study Circle". Retrieved 2021-11-12.
  6. ^ "Book Marks reviews of The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell". Book Marks. Retrieved 2022-11-15.
  7. ^ Mohamed, Nadifa (14 March 2019), "The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell review – genre-blending Zambian debut", The Guardian.
  8. ^ Cummins, Anthony (10 March 2019), "The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell – review: Sci-fi meets forbidden love in a debut novel spanning centuries and continents", The Observer.
  9. ^ "'The Old Drift' Takes The Long View Of Human (And Mosquito) History". Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  10. ^ "2020 GPLA Winners".
  11. ^ locusmag (2020-05-15). "2020 Nommo Awards Shortlist". Locus Online. Retrieved 2021-08-22.