cover image Harry Sylvester Bird

Harry Sylvester Bird

Chinelo Okparanta. Mariner, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-358-61727-3

The inventive if messy latest from Okparanta (Under the Udala Trees) chronicles the coming-of-age of a young white man who is convinced he is Black. In 2016, 14-year-old Harry Sylvester Bird develops an enduring fascination with Blackness while on a safari in Tanzania. (Regarding a Black tour guide’s arm hairs: “I noted them and wished I could be them.”) Several years later and back home in Edward, Pa., Harry’s racist parents slide toward financial catastrophe as Harry graduates high school and Covid-19 takes hold, spurring vaccination checkpoints and a national “bubble registry.” Eager to distance himself from his family, Harry moves to New York and starts to identify as Black, going by “G-Dawg” and joining a “Transracial-Anon” support group. After ambivalently accepting a scholarship from the Purists (an extremist white populist political party), Harry enrolls in college and falls in love with Maryam, a fellow student from Nigeria. Despite some disastrous early dates, the couple stays together for years until a study-abroad trip to Ghana compels Harry to grapple with his identity and puts his relationship with Maryam to the test. There are weighty ideas here, but Harry’s lack of self-awareness will test readers’ patience, and the satire sometimes gets lost in the scattered plot. This doesn’t quite stick the landing. (July)