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The Old Drift
Cover of The Old Drift
The Old Drift
A Novel
"A dazzling debut, establishing Namwali Serpell as a writer on the world stage."—Salman Rushdie, The New York Times Book Review

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Dwight Garner, The New York Times • The New York Times Book Review Time • NPR
  • The AtlanticBuzzFeedTordotcom Kirkus Reviews BookPage
    Winner of the for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award
  • Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction • Winner of the Windham-Campbell Prizes for Fiction

    1904. 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.
    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, this gripping, unforgettable novel is a testament to our yearning to create and cross borders, and a meditation on the slow, grand passage of time.

    Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Ray Bradbury Prize • Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
    "An intimate, brainy, gleaming epic . . . This is a dazzling book, as ambitious as any first novel published this decade."—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

    "A founding epic in the vein of Virgil's Aeneid . . . 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

    "A story that intertwines strangers into families, which we'll follow for a century, magic into everyday moments, and the story of a nation, Zambia."—NPR
  • "A dazzling debut, establishing Namwali Serpell as a writer on the world stage."—Salman Rushdie, The New York Times Book Review

    NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Dwight Garner, The New York Times • The New York Times Book Review Time • NPR
  • The AtlanticBuzzFeedTordotcom Kirkus Reviews BookPage
    Winner of the for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award
  • Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction • Winner of the Windham-Campbell Prizes for Fiction

    1904. 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.
    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, this gripping, unforgettable novel is a testament to our yearning to create and cross borders, and a meditation on the slow, grand passage of time.

    Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Ray Bradbury Prize • Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
    "An intimate, brainy, gleaming epic . . . This is a dazzling book, as ambitious as any first novel published this decade."—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

    "A founding epic in the vein of Virgil's Aeneid . . . 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

    "A story that intertwines strangers into families, which we'll follow for a century, magic into everyday moments, and the story of a nation, Zambia."—NPR
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    • From the book

      Prologue

      Zt. Zzt. ZZZzzzZZZzzzzZZZzzzzzzo'ona.

      And so. A dead white man grows bearded and lost in the blinding heart of Africa. With his rooting and roving, his stops and starts, he becomes accidental father of this land, our pater muzungu. This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it begins, of course, with a white man.

      Once upon a time, a goodly Scottish doctor caught a notion to locate the source of the Nile. He found instead a gash in the ground full of massed, tum- bling water. His bearers called it Mosi-o-Tunya, The Smoke That Thunders, but he gave it the name of his queen instead. In his journal, he described the Falls with a stately awe, comparing the far-flung water to British things: to fleece and snow and the sparks from burning steel, to myriads of small comets rushing on in one direction, each of which left behind its nucleus rays of foam. He speculated that angels had gazed upon it and said, 'How lovely.' He opined, like a set designer, that there really ought to be mountains in the backdrop.

      Years passed. Adventure. Disaster. Fame. Commerce. Christianity. Civilisation. He was mauled by a lion that shook him in its jaws, he said, as a dog shakes a rat. His wife died of fever; his beloved dog drowned. He voyaged over land and through swamps and along endless waterways. He freed slaves along the way, broke their chains with his very hands and took them on as his bearers. Late in his life, he witnessed a massacre – slave traders shooting at men and women in a lake, so many the carcasses choked it and the canoes could not pass. He despaired. He was broken, broke; his queen had forgot him; the Royal Geographers had declared him dead. Then a mercenary Welsh bastard named Stanley found him, presumed, shook his hand, and sent word to London. And in an instant he was famous again, as if risen from the dead. Yet he refused to return to Merrie England.

      Doddering, he drove deeper into the continent instead, still seeking his beloved Nile. Oh, father muzungu! The word means white man, but it describes not a skin colour but a tendency. A muzungu is one who will zunguluka – wander, aimless – until they zungusha, go in circles. And so our dizzy, movious muzungu pitched up here again, half-drowned in mud, dragging his black bearers with him.

      His medicine box went missing – who took it? They never found out – and with it, his precious quinine. Fever hunted him and finally caught him. He died in a hut, in the night, kneeling on his bed, his head in his hands. His men disembowelled him, planted his heart under an mpundu tree, and bore his corpse to the coast. The HMS Vulture took his body home – what was left without the living was buried under stone at Westminster Abbey. His people recognized him by the scrapes of the lion's teeth on his humerus bone.

      There was great wonder at the resolve of his bearers. To travel with a corpse for months on end, suffering loss and injury, sickness and battle? To forge on in blistering heat and blundering rain, beating off the superstition that to carry death is to beckon it? To come all the way to England, to answer to interrogation, to build a model of the hut that he died in? What faith! What love! No, no – what fear! That corpse, that body was proof. Without it, who would have trusted them? Who would have taken their word that a white man, among savages, had died of bad luck – a mere fever?

      Men never believe that chance can wreak such consequence. Yet the story of this place is full of such...

    About the Author-
    • 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 and was selected for the Africa 39, a Festival project to identify the best African writers under 40. She won the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction. The Old Drift is her first novel.
    Reviews-
    • Library Journal

      October 15, 2018

      From Zambia-born, California-based Caine Prize winner Serpell, this large-scaled saga follows three curse-ridden families over three generations, beginning with David Livingstone greeting the Victoria Falls and ending in 2050 southern Africa. And those buzzing mosquitoes? They're a Greek chorus.

      Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

    • Kirkus

      Starred review from January 15, 2019
      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.The year is 1904, and an itinerant would-be photographer named Percy Clark has wandered from his native England to a colonial outpost along the Zambezi River in what was then known as the Northwestern Rhodesia territory. One momentous day, Clark, addled by fever, is stumbling around the lobby of the Victoria Falls Hotel and somehow manages to inadvertently pull a hank of hair from the pate of the hotel's Italian manager, whose 5-year-old daughter angrily responds by striking an "innocent native" passer-by so hard that "he became an imbecile." From the moment that inexplicable calamity occurs, the descendants of these individuals find their respective fates entwined through what's left of the 20th century and beyond as the land around them morphs into the nation of Zambia. Sometime in the 1960s, for instance, Percy's wealthy granddaughter, Agnes, deprived by blindness of a promising tennis career, falls in love with a brilliant black exchange student whom she accompanies back to the soon-to-be-independent Zambia he calls home. During those same years, Matha, the precocious granddaughter of the poor assault victim, is among several math-and-science prodigies recruited by the country's Minister of Space Research to train for a mission to the moon by decade's end. Strangest of all these progenies is Sibilla, the granddaughter of the hotel manager, who is born with streams and streams of hair that never stops growing--and apparently makes things grow out of the ground, too. The children and the children's children of these women find themselves inexorably, absurdly, and at times tragically drawn together through the history of both Zambia and the patch of land where their ancestors first collided. Blending intimate and at times implausible events with real-life history, this first novel by Serpell--a Zambian writer who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and who's won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story "The Sack"--enchants its readers with prose as luxuriant and flowing as Sibilla's hair.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.

      COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

    • Booklist

      Starred review from February 1, 2019
      Proudly uncategorizable, Serpell's excellent first novel traverses a shifting genre landscape while delving into Zambia's tumultuous history in intimate detail. The Old Drift is a settlement along the Zambezi River, in which the novel begins in the early twentieth century. It concludes in 2023, covering British colonialism, the Kariba Dam's construction, Zambian independence, the AIDS epidemic, and more. To err is human, that's your doom and delight, pronounces the unusual swarm of creatures narrating the story, which emphasizes the circumstantial and genetic chances affecting one's life. While a genealogical chart reveals people's connections, the plot remains surprising. The tale of Sibilla, a hirsute Italian woman, has fairy-tale echoes. Matha, a teenage girl, trains as an astronaut, while other characters play major roles in medical research. From the Shiwa Ng'andu estate to the Kalingalinga compound, the deeply human, ethnically diverse characters fall in love, grieve, betray one another, and make shocking choices. 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. While a bit too lengthy, Serpell's novel is absorbing, occasionally strange, and entrenched in Zambian culture?in all, an unforgettable original.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2019, American Library Association.)

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