New People

6 of 19
New People
240 pages; Riverhead Books

Danzy Senna’s New People is slender but powerful, as seductive and urgent as a phone call from an old flame. At first blush, the book seems like a straightforward love story—the saga of an engaged couple, Maria and Khalil, in mid-1990s Brooklyn—but it’s more complicated than that.

Maria, who’s writing her dissertation on Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple cult, is biracial, while Khalil, a computer whiz who’s launching his own business, is black and Jewish. The two are appearing in a friend’s documentary, also called New People, about society’s multiracial future.

That film title could also describe what’s on Maria’s mind. She’s become fixated on a member of the couple’s circle—"the poet."

Maria’s preoccupation with the poet occasions an exhumation of boyfriends past. As Senna takes us to Crazytown, she shows how profoundly Maria’s interracial status has affected her sense of self, her choices. Maria ponders whether to go for it with the poet (no spoilers here), then succumbs to near insanity, her attachment to the poet leading her to take mind-boggling risks. Senna writes about that descent with admirable control; even as her protagonist faces truly dangerous and deranged circumstances, the writing remains crisp and sharp.

This is not a book about race disguised as a romance, nor is it a love story saddled with a moral. Senna’s achievement is that she interlaces both threads in one ingenious tale. 

— Rumaan Alam