Book Review: New People by Danzy Senna

Maria first met him several months ago- and now, it seems, he is everywhere she looks.

New People by Danzy Senna draws from her experience as a multiracial woman in a world bent on categorizing people by their skin color. Through her lens we see the topics of race, society and stereotype refined in a whole new way. Written in brilliant prose cut with a dark edge, this novel is a hugely entertaining, though serious, work of literary fiction.

Maria and Khalil are the quintessential young, East Coast couple—newly engaged, just now spreading their wings into accomplishment and success. Straddling the line between their outward appearance as biracial, light-skinned individuals and their internal identities that strain against the expectations and stereotypes of society, Maria and Khalil must navigate a tricky path. What we uncover here is the internal struggle of Maria as she battles against the life she has and the life she envisions, which ultimately lead her down a path of obsession and turmoil. She begins to lust after a mysterious young man with whom she pictures a life less constrained by expectation.

When she thinks of the poet, she doesn’t imagine their future-a relationship, a home, a union, a child. She only imagines the beginning, the moment they are about to touch for the first time.

This plotline serves both as the backdrop and the foreground for the remaining action of the novel. Each scene that plays out is weighed in Maria’s mind against what she has with Khalil and what she imagines with the poet all the while steeped in the heavy tonic of race. Maria’s plight is a deeply rendered coming-of-age tale as well as a meditation on racial identity and the niche that multiracial persons must carve out for themselves.

Maria smirks at the poet, wondering if he too can see how forced it all is- this group and the pantomime of their newly discovered blackness. It’s catching. The craze. We were once lost but now we’re black. It’s so old-school it’s new-school. They have taken their duties as Negroes with aplomb, she’s gotta give them that. Theyre born-again black people. They weeble and wobble on their new roller skates and almost fall, but she has to give them an A for effort.

Gripping and thought-provoking, Senna pens Maria with such vulnerability, hidden under the requisite tough exterior, which adds the right touch of emotion to this darkly comic analysis of race in upper-middle class America.

It will, Elsa says, suggest the end of an era, the beginning of a new one- like the way sometimes those apocalypse movies end with the birth of a new baby. That will be implicit, that a new race will be born from these New People.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Riverhead Books.

8 thoughts

  1. This sounds really interesting. I’m trying to read more diverse books, and I think this one fits perfectly. I especially love that the author balances different tones and emotions to give it complexity. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had trouble with it too, for a similar reason. I tried my best though. My reason for reviewing books is that there is a place in the world for every book, and even if I’m not the right audience at least I can do my part to spread the word and help the book to find the audience it’s meant for- which can mean many different things.

      Liked by 1 person

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