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.

Publishers: Penguin Random House

Genre(s): Magical Realism, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


Every time someone asks me to recommend a 21st century novel that addresses the history of an African country truthfully and unapologetically, I think of The Old Drift.

As far as opening sentences go, this book has one of my favorites out of all the historical fiction novels I have ever read.

It begins with a warning to the reader that this is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it must begin with the tale of a white man. This satirical statement was made by the author to correct the false impression that the colonialists have created in history by refusing to acknowlege that the colonized people had a life before they showed up and disorganized everything.

Tracing this history, from the life of the white man in question, Percy M. Clark, a settler at the Old Drift (the first colonial settlement set up in former Rhodesia – today’s Zambia) we see how an encounter with other settlers and natives set off a series of events resulting in a very complicated. multigenerational family saga.


The Old Drift is 563 pages long. It is divided into three parts: The Grandmothers, The Mothers and The Children. In it, I found characters that would stay with me long after I finished reading it. I often, think about Sibilla when I think about women struggling with hirustism and Naila’s fierce attitude to life is admirable.

Namwali’s storytelling will leave you spell bound. It’s impressive how she blends multiple fiction genres together to produce a stellar work of art where the past is examined and anything is possible in the future.

She is also fearless in her appraisal of the past. She explores the unpopular opinion that colonialism was not born out of sheer curiosity or love or humanitarian purposes. Rather it was concieved of an evil idea that preying on the weak and assuming Africans would be good for business. Put simply, the quest for power and money fueled The Scramble for Africa at the Berlin Conference. Every other diastrous consequence that followed was collateral damage and they couldn’t care less.


The Old Drift is 563 pages long. Like most big books, it gets tiring towards the end – in this case because it gets very techy.

Regardless, I had a great time reading this book and I would recommend it.

The Old Drift - Namwali Serpell - Book Review

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *