New People is a book hinged on race, the currency within it, alongside a fixation on newness and going against the old and predictable. We’ve all been there, with some situation or other, in which the safe circumstance we have built for ourselves is losing its once exciting potential – the grass on the other side is starting to look greener, or at least intriguing. This is the dilemma that Danzy Senna’s protagonist, Maria, finds herself in.
Maria has it set: she’s educated and working on a dissertation, she’s about to marry her college sweetheart who adores her, and she’s starring in a documentary on “new people” who blur old boundaries. Yet, her attitude towards all this is one of blasé. Why? A mysterious poet she’s only briefly encountered has taken hold of and dictated her imagination. Interweaved within this plot are comments on race and what it means to be black but look “beige” – Lisa has a higher status for being darker than Maria, which is one of the building blocks for her desire to reject “whiteness” and instead embrace her less visible blackness. Maria has reached a point of evaluation over who she is and what she wants.
One comic moment playing on this instability of identity is when Maria gets roped into the Church of Scientology to take their personality test. It was particularly amusing to me because recently a woman tried to walk me over to their Church near St Pauls for this said test and spoke to me in a way just like the character in the book does to Maria, (except I cut it short and got away). Moments like this capture reality really well. Senna depicts day to day realities in a believable sort of way, however the language shifts to be more romanticised when Maria thinks of the poet, distinguishing its difference to her reality. These moments that grant poetical language reiterate their contrast to the way her safe and knowable life is written.
Seduced by these romantic, almost teenage thoughts, Maria becomes obsessive over the poet, and it’s uncomfortable reading at this stage. Senna’s protagonist is blinded by infatuation, and we as readers can see the signs that Maria reads into are actually meaningless. Maria is a flawed character, and certainly an anti-hero. It’s hard to sympathise with episodes such as when she takes the poet’s hat, longingly smelling it. Maria is a character that embodies the common fear or overthought of settling for what is laid out ahead, but then this relatable experience changes as she advances into neurosis and near abandonment of her present situation. This second half of the book is where Senna really hooks in the reader – there is risk with every fantasy and encounter with the poet, and a twist that falls near the end. Maria is an exploration of what happens beyond the fleeting thought of ‘what if’ as it becomes an ugly and desperate fixation.
New People by Danzy Senna is published by Riverhead Books and releases on 1st August 2017 (£12.99, p/b, 240pp, 9781594487095)