According to Brazil’s 2010 census, 43% of citizens identify as mixed-race, while 30% of those who consider themselves white have black ancestors. Brazil has always wrestled with issues surrounding colourism and racial classification. Even affirmative action policies – such as race-based quotas at universities – have proved contentious. Paulo Scott explores these tensions in his latest novel, seamlessly translated by Daniel Hahn.

Lourenço and Federico are from the same Porto Alegre family – their father is black, their mother white. Lourenço is dark-skinned, while Federico’s pale skin means he passes for white. Uncomfortable with the privilege this brings him, Federico works with disadvantaged black youth and dedicates his life to fighting racism. But guilt taints his close relationships and fuels his quick temper. Eventually he moves away, while his brother, a basketball coach, remains a popular figure in their neighbourhood.

Phenotypes opens in 2016, at the height of the quotas controversy. Some students have used their black ancestry to abuse the scheme, while other eligible students are deemed “insufficiently brown”. Federico has been asked to sit on a government commission in Brasília charged with limiting race fraud. Meanwhile, anti-government protests are spreading across the country and a family emergency calls him back to Porto Alegre.

Porto Alegre: uncomfortable with the privilege his light skin brings him, Federico leaves the neighbourhood. Photograph: Thiago Santos/Alamy

This is an artfully plotted tale about race, privilege and guilt. Scott circles around the inflammatory event that occurred decades before – a racist comment that provoked a violent fight among teenagers – and demonstrates how quickly prejudice spreads, often with lifelong repercussions. Years later, this incident is linked to the detention of Federico’s niece for the illegal possession of a firearm.

Scott’s characterisation is superb. Federico’s complexities are revealed through his interactions with others, their different views of him, his public image and inner angst. His conflicted protagonist is flawed but hugely sympathetic. The stream-of-consciousness narrative, long sentences, paragraphs that run over pages and lack of speech tags are challenging, but careful reading proves richly rewarding. Phenotypes educates and entertains in equal measure.

  • Phenotypes by Paulo Scott (translated by Daniel Hahn) is published by And Other Stories (£10). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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