Book Review for “Quicksand & Passing” by Nella Larsen.
Summary: “Quicksand, written in 1928, is an autobiographical novel about Helga Crane, a mixed-race woman caught between fulfilling her desires and gaining respectability in her middle-class neighborhood. Written a year later, Passing tells the story of two childhood friends, Clare and Irene, both light-skinned enough to pass as white. Reconnecting in adulthood, Clare has chosen to live as a white woman, while Irene embraces black culture and has an important role in her community.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Fiction – Literary, Women, Diverse; Era: Contemporary, Vintage; Setting: America, Denmark.
When a fellow blogger wrote about this book, I realized that this was exactly the type of literary work by an #OwnVoices author that I was looking to read. You see, although I do believe I read relatively diversely, I can see the advantages, if not need, to promote more diverse authors these days. However, it seems that the majority of today’s diverse authors are writing novels in genres I don’t generally read. Now, I don’t think it would be fair of me to read and review a book that already has at least one strike against it because it’s a genre I don’t like. Instead, I’ve begun a (quiet) quest to find those diverse authors – both past and present – whose work I can approach as objectively as possible. This novel is one of the first (although I think that Taylor Jenkins Reid also qualifies, albeit in hindsight, since I didn’t know she was both bisexual and of Cuban heritage when I read her books). With that out of the way, as noted above, this book has two of Larsen’s novels, which are both fairly short (essentially novella length), and as such, I think I should approach them separately in this review.
However, before I do that, I’d like to just state that I found Larsen’s writing style to be very interesting – both in a good way and in a not so good way. The thing that was less positive was how Larsen structures many of her sentences that felt slightly artificial. What I mean by this is that sometimes Larsen broke up her complex sentences with insertions of what felt like parenthetical remarks. These seemingly editorial-like inclusions came mostly when describing a scene or some piece of action, and for me they broke the flow of the narrative. In most instances, I actually had to reread the line to remind myself of the subject of the sentence. It almost felt like she mistrusted her readers to understand her point, and needed to add a tidbit to clarify herself. Despite these somewhat disruptive bits, I found Larsen’s voice was actually quite beautiful, and elegant in style. Mind you, there were a couple times when that sophistication felt almost snobbish, but I think that was mostly when the characters were themselves acting haughty, which nicely fit the stories, particularly the second one.
As noted above, this story is apparently an autobiographical novel, where Larsen portrays herself as Helga Crane. Helga had a black father and a Danish mother, and as the story begins, Helga has decided to leave her job teaching at a highly respected black boarding school in the South of the US, where she feels out of place, unaccepted, and unsatisfied with the school and its policies. The rest of her story has her traveling to different places – including the Harlem neighborhood of New York, and Copenhagen in Denmark. Helga is very much a lost soul. Her mixed-race makes her not black enough in one place, and visibly non-white in others. This frustration comes through in Larsen’s prose so poignantly, that I was surprised that I had such a hard time liking Helga, and more importantly, I had an even harder time sympathizing with her.
Look, I fully understand the feeling of not fitting in, wanting to be accepted by people who see me as an “other” and not wanting me to be considered one of them. My whole youth was like that. Yes, I was lucky in that I was able to find a place where I could be myself, and where I eventually felt accepted. But the emphasis should be on “eventually” because it sometimes takes time and effort to get to that place. My problem with this story was that I felt Helga allowed herself to be swept away, and that she undermined her own destiny, which didn’t make me feel very sorry for her. This therefore is a bit of a cautionary tale, rather than a hopeful one.
The main protagonist in this story is Irene, whose story is told in third person, mostly focusing on her thoughts and actions. What I noticed in this shorter work was that Larsen was able to show us a much better ability to develop her characters and how they change throughout the narrative (not always for the better), than she did in Quicksand. Here too, we don’t find Clare to be very likeable (and we totally hate her essentially white supremacist husband), but we do start to feel a bit sorry for her as the story progresses. This is especially true as we note how keeping her race a secret has affected her so negatively. This also makes her wanting to become part of Irene’s society all the more poignant and believable. On the other hand, Irene starts out as a much more sympathetic character, who does lose some of her appeal by the end of the story. Of the two novellas, I liked this one better than the first, mostly because the levels of despair and angst were less prominent, and also because both of the women in this story were more self-empowered than Helga, although all of them showed various levels of self-pity (which I didn’t find to be all that attractive).
After reading these two stories, it occurred to me that Larsen probably had a very difficult time living in her own skin; she must have used these pieces of fiction to express her own self-doubts and misgivings for choices she made in her own life. As noted above, the beauty of the prose here was unmistakable, and despite the slightly jarring stylistic sentence structure, I really enjoyed reading these, even if many of the characters were disagreeable. Of course, the timeliness of the subject matter certainly had something to do with my choosing to buy this book. I believe I understood most of what Larsen was trying to express here, as well the importance of Larsen’s message, which is as valid today as it was in the late 1920s. I can therefore warmly recommend these stories with a solid four out of five stars.
“Quicksand & Passing” by Nella Larsen is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon.com, Amazon.uk, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository (worldwide free shipping), Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.