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.
...in New People, her captivating and incisive fifth book, Danzy Senna has crafted a tragicomic novel that powerfully conjures the sense of optimism once associated with future racial transcendence, even as it grounds that idealism in a present that bears more than just a family resemblance to the racialized past ... New People questions whether the notion of racial liberation truly offers a solution to the unfinished work of racial justice. It may also cause you to question whether completion is, in fact, a virtue.