In “New People,” Danzy Senna employs harsher but more comical strokes than in her earlier two novels, in which she focused on the fault lines of race in America. The author will be at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Aug. 14.

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“New People”

by Danzy Senna

Riverhead Books, 229 pp., $26

In her dazzling 1998 literary debut, “Caucasia,” and again in her second novel, “Symptomatic,” Danzy Senna focused on the fault lines of race in America — not black vs. white, necessarily, so much as the fissures within people of mixed race whose outward appearances don’t always reflect their ethnic heritage.

The sources of her obsession grew clear in her shrewd, candid 2009 memoir, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” There she revealed she was the daughter of two writers: Fanny Howe, from a white patrician New England family, and Carl Senna, the son of a black mother from the South and a father of uncertain identity. The marriage didn’t last long, and the fallout for Senna and her siblings was chaotic.

The protagonist of Senna’s third novel, “New People,” is chaotic, too — a combustible mix of racial confusion, wayward desire and identity-politics resentment.

Author appearance

Danzy Senna

The author of “New People” will read at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 14, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

To all appearances, 27-year-old academic Maria Pierce’s life is following a smooth, conventional track. She’s engaged to a patient, levelheaded start-up entrepreneur, Khalil Mirsky, and their wedding promises to be a swank affair. It’s taking place on Martha’s Vineyard, with an after-party booked at a converted hangar at the island’s airport. Maria shops for her wedding dress at Bergdorf Goodman.

We’re talking biggish money.

But not far below the surface Maria is in self-sabotaging turmoil. She keeps returning to memories of her late adoptive mother, an African-American woman whose plans to give her baby a black-pride upbringing were confounded by Maria’s light-skinned appearance.

Maria’s sex life with Khalil, meanwhile, can’t compare to the erotic connection she had in college with “a white guy she despised and fantasized about bludgeoning to death with an African statuette.” Moreover, with wedding plans afoot, she has grown sexually obsessed with, and is literally stalking, a black poet she and Khalil both admire.

Her dissertation about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre (“an ethnomusicology of the Peoples Temple”) doesn’t bode well either. Jim Jones’ suicide cult attracted a number of mixed-race victims, and Maria’s attempt to process that information only leaves her more off-kilter.

The final capper: Maria and Khalil have been chosen to appear in a documentary about mixed-race couples. To the filmmaker, they embody “a tangle of mud-colored New People who have come to carry the nation — blood-soaked, guilty of everything of which it has been accused — into the future.” But Maria’s antics may well derail the project.

In “New People,” Senna employs harsher but more comical strokes than in her earlier two novels. Both “Caucasia” and “Symptomatic” were first-person narratives, but “New People” is written in a jumpy third-person present tense. At first it feels like an uncomfortable fit for Senna as a writer, yet its irritants soon become integral to its package.

Two extended set pieces — one where Maria is mistaken for a Latina nanny and gets saddled with a live squalling baby for the evening, and another where she succumbs to a personality test administered by a former-classmate-turned-Scientologist (“Can you remember a time when you were really real?”) — are a bracing blend of grotesque and hilarious.

Maria’s problem — the thing that makes her judge everyone she encounters so severely — is having to continually choose and explain her racial loyalties. She’s a prickly creature, but Senna makes it clear she’s one of us.