A darkly comic novel about race and identity set in Brooklyn in the mid-1990s. Seemingly perfect 27-year-old Maria and her college sweetheart Khalil, both mixed-race, are planning their wedding. They’re also the stars of a new documentary about interracial couples. When Maria develops a fixation with a mysterious black poet, things begin to unravel.
Maria’s confusion is central to the breakdown that follows her obsession, and Ms. Senna deftly draws it out in the way of an espionage thriller, peeling back her characters’ racial personas as though they were so many disguises ... The frankness with which New People treats race as a kind of public performance is both uncomfortable and strangely cathartic. Being a performance, it transforms easily into deception, and the story hinges on two hallucinatory sequences in which Maria falsifies her identity in order to sneak into the poet’s apartment. The ending of this brittle, provocative novel carries the fated sense of a utopia heading inexorably toward collapse.
It says a great deal for New People — Danzy Senna’s martini-dry, espresso-dark comedy of contemporary manners — that its compound of caustic observations and shrewd characterizations could only have emerged from a writer as finely tuned to her social milieu as [Jane] Austen was to hers ... We may not always like Maria. Yet, as with many a complex heroine of classic comedies-of-errors, we somehow keep faith with her struggles to reconcile her myriad convolutions and warring emotions ... The book doesn’t pour cold water on one’s expectations for a better, more tolerant world. In fact, it implies that world has, to a great extent, already arrived. Brave new worlds sometimes emerge when you’re not ready for them; whether in a stranger’s apartment or in your own, too-human heart.
Thrillingly, blackness is not hallowed in Senna’s work, nor is it impervious to pathologies of ego. Senna particularly enjoys lampooning the search for racial authenticity. Her characters, and the clannish worlds they are often trying to escape, teeter on the brink of ruin and absurdity. Senna’s latest novel, the slick and highly enjoyable New People, makes keen, icy farce of the affectations of the Brooklyn black faux-bohemia ... There were moments when, reading New People, I wondered if Senna had crafted Maria as a rebuttal to the lure of relatability in black art, which is itself a new form of sobriety. Just when we think we understand Maria—as a wayward, Brooklyn twenty-something in search of stability just like everyone else—she shocks us ... For Senna, identity, far from being a point of solidarity, is a beckoning void, and adroit comedy quickly liquefies into absurd horror.