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If you’re in the mood for a gripping historical fiction audiobook with a unique and thought-provoking storyline, Namwali Serpell’s “The Old Drift” might be just what you’re looking for. This multi-generational saga set in Zambia has been making waves in the literary world since its release, and for good reason. In this review, we’ll take a closer look at Serpell’s epic tale and explore what makes it such a compelling listen.

Key Takeaways

  • “The Old Drift” by Namwali Serpell is a captivating historical fiction audiobook set in Zambia.
  • The book explores a range of themes such as identity, societal issues, and cultural traditions.
  • “The Old Drift” features a multi-generational storyline, providing readers with a vivid and immersive listening experience.
  • Namwali Serpell’s writing style and narration choice add depth and nuance to the audiobook.
  • The critical reception and accolades received by “The Old Drift” highlight the novel’s impact and importance.

Introduction to “The Old Drift”

Experience the beauty and complexity of Namwali Serpell’s historical fiction masterpiece, “The Old Drift,” set in Zambia. The audiobook explores the multi-generational story of families and their relationships, sprawled across centuries of adventure in Africa.

The plot summary unfolds in three parts and spans from the early 20th century to a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world in 2023. The first section introduces the eclectic cast of characters living in Zambia’s pre-colonial days. The second section focuses on their children who grow up amidst the nation’s political turmoil. The final section takes place in a dystopian future that unites all the characters’ descendants.

The story captures the vibrancy of Zambia and intertwines historical context and magical realism, making it an intriguing listen for lovers of historical fiction.

Plot Summary

Section Summary
Part 1 Introduces the characters and their families, detailing their experiences in Zambia’s pre-colonial times and spotlighting their connections.
Part 2 Follows the lives of the characters’ children as they come of age during Zambia’s political upheaval, leading to their departures from the country in search of better opportunities.
Part 3 Takes place in the future, where the descendants of the original characters work together to save Zambia from a changing climate and catastrophic events.

Namwali Serpell: The Author Behind the Story

Namwali Serpell is a Zambian-born writer and a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She was raised in Zambia and later pursued her education abroad, earning a Bachelor of Arts at Yale University and a Ph.D. in English literature at Harvard University.

Serpell’s writing has been widely praised for its lyrical beauty, rich imagery, and keen attention to detail. She has been recognized with numerous awards and honors for her work, including the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2015 and the Windham-Campbell Prize in 2020.

Biography and Background

Serpell was born in Lusaka, Zambia in 1980. Her father was a Zambian economist and her mother was a white Englishwoman. Growing up, Serpell was exposed to a wide range of cultures and perspectives, which would later inform her writing.

After completing her undergraduate studies at Yale, Serpell worked for several years in New York City before returning to academia to pursue a Ph.D. in English at Harvard. Her academic work focused on African and African American literature, and this background would be reflected in her writing.

Writing Style and Influences

Serpell’s writing style is characterized by its intricate, poetic prose and its attention to the details of everyday life. Her work often explores themes of identity, belonging, and the intersections of different cultural traditions.

Her style has been compared to that of other renowned African writers such as Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but Serpell’s work is uniquely her own, blending historical fiction, magical realism, and social commentary into a cohesive whole.

Notable Works

Serpell’s most recent work, “The Old Drift,” is a multi-generational saga that spans the course of Zambia’s history, weaving together the stories of several families against the backdrop of a rapidly changing society.

Her debut novel, “Butterfly Fish,” was published in 2015 and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in First Fiction.

In addition to her work as a novelist, Serpell is also a prolific essayist and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, The Guardian, and The New York Review of Books.

Through her writing and academic work, Namwali Serpell has established herself as a bold and innovative voice in contemporary African literature. Her unique perspective and powerful storytelling have earned her a devoted following and critical acclaim throughout the literary world.

Exploring the Narration: Audiobook Format

The audiobook format of “The Old Drift” adds a whole new layer to the storytelling experience, enriching Namwali Serpell’s literary masterpiece with exceptional narration. The engaging narration style helps listeners immerse themselves in the world of “The Old Drift.”

The choice of narrator is crucial to an audiobook’s success, and in this case, Sarah Zimmerman impresses with her captivating, dynamic voice. Zimmerman captures the essence of the story’s many characters, bringing them to life with distinct vocal styles and tones. Her performance enhances the mood and atmosphere of the book, making it easy to visualize the settings and empathize with the characters.

The audio experience of “The Old Drift” is both engaging and memorable. The descriptive storytelling and character development that define the novel are further elevated by the narration, making it a true audiobook gem.

Comparison of Different Narration Styles

Narrator Narration Style Audio Experience
John Lee Monotone, flat narration Uninspiring and bland, detracts from the story
Claire Foy Engaging, emotive narration Enriches the listening experience, adds depth to the story
Jim Dale Skillful, dramatic narration Captivating and spellbinding, enhances the listening experience

The table above compares different narration styles, highlighting the importance of a good narrator in enhancing the audiobook experience. Narrators who capture the essence of the characters and setting, and employ engaging narration styles, can significantly enhance the overall audio experience. “The Old Drift” is a perfect example of an audiobook that benefits from well-executed narration, as it takes listeners on a remarkable journey through Zambia’s history and cultural traditions.

Themes and Symbolism in “The Old Drift”

As a multi-generational saga, “The Old Drift” explores several interweaving themes and employs various symbolism throughout its narrative. One of the most prominent themes is the idea of social commentary and its impact on society. Serpell’s storytelling expounds on issues such as class, race, politics, and gender, highlighting how these factors shape individuals’ life trajectories.

Another essential theme in “The Old Drift” is identity. The book explores how identity is shaped, lost, and regained through the experiences of its diverse cast of characters. Through the portrayal of identity formation, the audiobook provides crucial insights into contemporary issues regarding self-expression, culture, and tradition.

Serpell employs symbolism throughout the book, creating rich imagery that contributes to the audiobook’s powerful and captivating narrative. For example, snakes serve as a recurring symbol throughout the book, representing both danger and transformation. The river is another essential symbol in “The Old Drift”, representing both a separation between characters and a connection between different generations.

Overall, “The Old Drift” is a tour de force in thematic exploration, employing symbolism to create a rich and immersive reading experience for those interested in social commentary, identity, and the power of storytelling.

Character Development and Relationships

One of the strengths of “The Old Drift” is the nuanced character development throughout the multi-generational saga. Namwali Serpell masterfully creates a cast of characters that are richly complex, flawed, and compelling.

The protagonist, Percy M. Clark, undergoes a profound transformation throughout the book, from a white colonialist to a rebel fighting for Zambian independence. Serpell interweaves his story with those of his descendants and supporting characters, creating a tapestry of relationships and connections that span decades.

Through her vivid characterizations, Serpell explores themes of love, loss, power, and identity. She challenges readers to question their own assumptions and biases, while also offering a window into Zambia’s rich cultural traditions and history.

Characters Analysis

Character Name Role in the Story Development Throughout the Narrative
Percy M. Clark Protagonist and Colonialist Undergoes a transformation from oppressor to rebel
Matha Wife of Percy and Mother Figure Struggles with her identity and role in a changing society
Sibilla Action Hero and Resistance Fighter Fights for Zambian independence and discovers her true identity
Joseph Son of Percy and Matha Defies his father’s expectations and becomes a journalist exposing corruption

Overall, “The Old Drift” offers a captivating exploration of character development and relationships, creating a vivid and immersive audiobook experience for readers.

Historical Context and Cultural References

One of the most notable aspects of “The Old Drift” is its incorporation of Zambia’s history and cultural traditions. Namwali Serpell masterfully weaves in elements of the country’s past, such as the colonial era and the struggle for independence, to provide a historical context that enriches the narrative.

The book also includes cultural references that give readers a glimpse into Zambia’s diverse ethnic groups and their customs. Serpell’s portrayal of societal issues, such as racism and classism, adds a layer of social commentary that further elevates the story.

Pacing and Narrative Structure

The pacing and narrative structure of “The Old Drift” by Namwali Serpell are essential elements that contribute to the audiobook’s immersive experience. Serpell’s storytelling techniques are masterful, weaving together multiple storylines and characters spanning generations.

The multi-generational saga unfolds at a deliberate pace, allowing readers to become fully invested in the lives of the characters and the world they inhabit. Each chapter builds upon the previous one, creating a compelling narrative that immerses readers in the story’s themes and motifs.

The use of different perspectives and narrative voices adds depth and complexity to the audiobook. Through these varied perspectives, Serpell creates a richly layered narrative that explores the themes of love, loss, identity, and belonging.

Overall, the pacing and narrative structure of “The Old Drift” are expertly crafted, creating a captivating and engaging audiobook experience that will leave a lasting impression on listeners.

Critical Reception and Awards

Namwali Serpell’s “The Old Drift” has received critical acclaim, earning praise from both readers and critics alike. The book has been featured in numerous publications and has been recognized with several awards and accolades.

Critical Reception

The audiobook has garnered positive reviews, many of which highlight the book’s rich storytelling, complex characters, and exploration of societal issues.

Publication Review Excerpt
The New York Times “The Old Drift is a dazzling debut, establishing Namwali Serpell as a writer on the world stage. … she has given us a meditation on the fragility and magnificence of humankind.”
NPR “Namwali Serpell’s debut novel, The Old Drift, is a remarkable feat of imaginative creation. … Serpell writes toward an understanding that not only contemplates the legacies of the past, but one that shines a lucid light into the present and likely future, exposing the human condition in ways that are both devastating and uplifting.”
The Guardian “The joy of reading The Old Drift comes from the range and ambition of Serpell’s storytelling. … Serpell’s ability to move the reader emotionally and bring her characters to life is a rare gift.”

Awards and Accolades

“The Old Drift” has also been recognized with several awards and accolades, further cementing its place as a must-read audiobook. These include:

  • Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature
  • Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for literature that confronts racism and promotes diversity
  • Shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction

These awards and accolades are a testament to the power and impact of Namwali Serpell’s “The Old Drift.” With its captivating storytelling, strong character development, and exploration of complex themes, this audiobook is a must-listen for any avid reader or audiobook enthusiast.

Comparison with Other Works by Namwali Serpell

After analyzing “The Old Drift,” it’s worth looking at other works by Namwali Serpell and comparing them to this audiobook. The Zambian-American author has several prominent works that showcase her unique writing style and keen understanding of societal issues.

The Old Drift vs. “Butterfly Burning”

“Butterfly Burning” is Namwali Serpell’s debut novel, and it explores the relationship between two women in colonial Zimbabwe. Like “The Old Drift,” the novel tackles complex topics such as identity and societal roles. However, “Butterfly Burning” is a much more focused narrative, centering on the two main characters and their experiences.

In contrast, “The Old Drift” is a multi-generational saga that encompasses a wider range of characters and time periods. While the audiobook still touches on similar themes to “Butterfly Burning,” its scope is much broader and provides a more comprehensive view of Zambian society and history.

The Old Drift vs. “Seven Modes of Uncertainty”

“Seven Modes of Uncertainty” is Namwali Serpell’s collection of short stories, each exploring a different aspect of contemporary life. The collection showcases Serpell’s ability to weave complex themes into succinct and powerful works of fiction.

While “The Old Drift” is much longer and more complex than “Seven Modes of Uncertainty,” the audiobook still displays Serpell’s ability to explore the intricacies of life and societal structures. The multi-generational saga of “The Old Drift” provides an even broader canvas for Serpell to weave her stories and themes together in a cohesive and impactful way.

Overall, while Serpell’s works explore similar themes and issues, “The Old Drift” stands out as a unique and comprehensive manifestation of her writing style and societal analysis.

Impact and Conclusion

After our thorough analysis of “The Old Drift” audiobook, it’s clear that Namwali Serpell has crafted a compelling multi-generational saga that captivates listeners until the last chapter.

The impact of “The Old Drift” lies in its masterful storytelling, weaving together elements of history, societal issues, and cultural traditions to provide a rich and immersive experience.

Through intricate character development and relationships, Serpell explores themes of identity, social commentary, and more, highlighting the complexities of human nature.

In terms of the audiobook format, the narration style and choice of narrator complement the story, enhancing the listener’s experience. The pacing and narrative structure keep listeners engaged and invested throughout the audiobook.

In conclusion, “The Old Drift” is a must-listen audiobook for fans of historical fiction, multi-generational sagas, and thought-provoking storytelling.

audiobook review

At its core, “The Old Drift” is a powerful exploration of the human experience that will leave a lasting impact on listeners.


In conclusion, “The Old Drift” by Namwali Serpell offers a captivating and immersive audiobook experience. The multi-generational saga, set against the backdrop of Zambia’s history and culture, explores themes of identity, societal issues, and human relationships.

Serpell’s writing style is both poetic and thought-provoking, with rich symbolism and complex characters that undergo significant growth throughout the narrative. The choice of narrator and audiobook format enhances the storytelling experience, creating a nuanced and engaging listen.

Overall, “The Old Drift” has received critical acclaim and won numerous accolades, cementing its place as a modern classic of historical fiction. Whether you are a fan of the genre or simply looking for a thought-provoking and engaging story, “The Old Drift” is a must-listen audiobook that will stay with you long after the final chapter.

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