The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell: A review

I am frequently flabbergasted when I consider all the excellent literature that is being produced at this time in human history. And so many of the wonderful novels that keep attracting my attention are the first novels of the authors. Where do all these accomplished writers spring from?

Well, in the case of Namwali Serpell, they spring from Zambia, at least originally. She and her family moved to the United States when she was only nine years old, so she actually grew up here, and she now teaches literature at the University of California, Berkeley. But she retains her Zambian roots and ethos. At some point, she decided to move on from teaching the art of literature to practicing it. The result is nothing short of dazzling.

The Old Drift is set mostly in Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa. It starts with a brief retelling of the story of how Stanley meets Livingstone along the Zambezi River. The river and the great falls which white people named Victoria Falls play a large part in the novel. The Old Drift refers to a spot on the river near the falls where much of the action takes place.

And the action begins around the start of the twentieth century with a plan to construct a dam on the Zambezi. It's a white man's plan that includes little or no regard for the black people who live there and whose lives will be disrupted by the dam. Thus, the seeds are sown for generations of resentment and conflict.

The various chapters of the book tell the stories of different characters and at first, these characters hardly seem connected. The book reads almost like a series of short stories. But, gradually, one begins to see how the characters are actually connected, sometimes by chance encounters and sometimes by very intimate contact. In fact, this book tells the story of more than a hundred years and four generations in three connected families - black, white, brown, and intermixed - and we see the actions and choices of one generation affecting those that follow. 

The focal points in the stories that Serpell tells are women and some of the stories themselves employ magical realism in the telling. There is a hirsute woman, thick hair covering most of her body and growing several feet a day. There is a woman who literally cannot stop crying, whose tears create virtual rivers. There is a blind tennis player. 

But though some of her characters border on the fantastical, they are never one-dimensional. They are fully formed and fleshed out. Even the despicable characters, including some racists, are not defined only by their unlovable traits; they are real people.

All of the women - the daughters, mothers, and grandmothers - of these stories are real women and they are all struggling in a society that does not make things easy for them. But most of them are survivors and they find a way to overcome the stumbling blocks placed in their way.

This is not to say that men do not also play their part in the novel. It is men who build that dam. As the dread Virus sweeps through Zambia in the '80s and '90s and into the twenty-first century, creating thousands of orphans, it is medical men who search desperately for a way to stop it. And as the novel veers into science fiction as it continues into the near future of the early 2020s, it is men who engineer bug-size microdrones and wearable technology of digital bead-like chips which, when inserted into the hands of wearers, turn those hands into virtual smartphones.

Mosquitoes also play their part in the story. In fact, part of the narration in each chapter is conducted by a swarm of mosquitoes. We see humans through their eyes. From the point of view of creatures that were there before us and who will likely be there when we are gone, humans look pretty pretentious. It is a rather comedic stroke of narrative brilliance. 

This really is an extraordinary, and very long at almost 600 pages, book. It is in no way an easy read, but it is worth the effort. I would fully expect to see it included in the buzz for the various literary awards this year.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars  


  1. Wow! What a find. I am putting this one on my list. Great review, Dorothy.

    1. I learned about it when I read a review in the NYT. It was a glowing review and it did not exaggerate, in my opinion.

  2. The POV of a swarm of mosquitoes?! That's different. More and more, mainstream literature is getting enriched by African authors with their unique outlooks towards life. I'd say it's about time.

    1. I couldn't agree more, and there are so many super-talented African writers at work today. Maybe there always were, but they are getting the recognition they deserve now.


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