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Long listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown.

“Extraordinary, ambitious, evocative…. A dazzling debut, establishing Namwali Serpell as a writer on the world stage.” SALMAN RUSHDIE, The New York Times Book Review (cover)

“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….” DWIGHT GARNER, The New York Times

“Astonishing.” ★ Publishers Weekly

“Unforgettable.” ★ Booklist

“Restless ingenuity.” ★ Kirkus Reviews

“Stunning.” ★ Library Journal


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 epic story of a small African nation, told by a mysterious swarm-like chorus that calls itself man’s greatest nemesis. 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. This error sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between these three Zambian families, as they continually collide over the course of the century, into the present, and beyond. 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 – THE OLD DRIFT is a gripping, unforgettable debut novel.

Praise for the old Drift

“Extraordinary, ambitious, evocative… The 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, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW (cover)

“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.” DWIGHT GARNER, THE NEW YORK TIMES

“Namwali Serpell’s vibrant, intellectually rich debut novel, The Old Drift… 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. . . . [A] clear-eyed, energetic and richly entertaining novel.” THE WASHINGTON POST

“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. It is the reader’s great privilege to follow her strange and vivid characters from cradle to grave.” THE SUNDAY TIMES

“Namwali Serpell's lush, sprawling new novel is a speculative history — and future — of Zambia…. To err also means to wander, and The Old Drift does, shamelessly: It does not acknowledge restraints of species or time or perspective or taste or page length. Like a mosquito swarm, the narrative hovers, drifts, and returns elliptically… sweeping in scope and gesture…. Serpell also performs exquisite acts of literary ventriloquism.” —NPR

“A heartbreaking epic of staggering creativity. 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.” THE BOSTON GLOBE

“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.’” THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Highly anticipated...a boldly sweeping epic... The singularly stunning achievement of [The Old Drift]: 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.” THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

“Namwali Serpell’s impressive first novel is an indulgent, centuries-spanning slab of life marbled with subplots, zigzagging between characters and decades to play snakes and ladders with the bloodlines of three Zambian families with roots from around the world.” THE OBSERVER

“This ambitious first novel has the chutzpah to work on a vast canvas, extending from colonial times to Afrofuturism… Serpell is a writer to watch.”THE GUARDIAN

“In a novel that spans the breadth of Zambia’s precolonial past to its digital future, Serpell’s unbound imagination is often a thing of beauty... It is in the familial space with its dramas of loves, betrayals, desires and dreams that she excels. Her Zambian characters are especially brimming and compelling. In a nod to Leo Tolstoy, she eventually offers her readers a lovely kernel of an overarching theme that binds her characters across the passage of time and encapsulates her confident writing style: ‘Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.’” THE MINNEAPOLIS STAR-TRIBUNE

“Serpell’s command of the minutia of sentence craft, and her ability to balance that craft against this novel’s massive historical scale is thrilling. The Old Drift feels like entering a wormhole, where time is both slow enough for us to note the way a woman’s dress knocks a wine glass off balance as she walks by, and vast enough that we may see exactly how feeble, how ultimately incidental to human history, nations are.” —INGRID ROJAS CONTRERAS, THE BELIEVER

"Serpell’s debut is a rich, complex saga of three intertwined families over the course of more than a century.... 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

 "The past, present, and future of an African nation is filtered with humane wit, vibrant rhetoric, and relentless ingenuity through the interweaving sagas of three very different families…. 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 REVIEWS

“"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

““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

“It’s hard to believe this is a debut, so assured is its language, so ambitious its reach, and yet The Old Drift is indeed Namwali Serpell’s first novel, and it signifies a great new voice in fiction." NYLON MAGAZINE

“In turns 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, author of Her Body & Other Parties

 “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, author of The Lovely Bones

 “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 humor and precision, there’s an old wisdom in these pages. In short, make room on your shelf next to a few of your other favorites: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Edwidge Danticat jump to mind. It’s brilliant. This woman was born to write!” —ALEXANDRA FULLER, author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

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, author of Under the Udala Trees

“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, author of What Belongs to You

 “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 NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI, author of Kintu

 “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, author of On Black Sisters’ Street and Night Dancer

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, author of The Night Guest and The High Places


Image of the Old Drift © Peter Roberts