Quicksand & Passing by Nella Larsen

I bought Quicksand & Passing after seeing it recommended by Emily Midorikawa on Instagram. I knew nothing about the book and didn’t really know what to expect. What I found was an inquisitive and eloquent voice that really transported me into the mind of Helga in Quicksand and Irene in Passing. I’m a huge fan of the concise, short novel (often really a novella by any other name). I love the way it can hone in on one theme or idea in a way that a longer work can struggle to sustain.

Both works tackle the concept of race in the 1920s, most specifically in America but touching on Europe too. 

In Quicksand Helga is an intelligent, energetic and beautiful woman of mixed heritage – her mother was Dutch and her father West Indian – who moves with relative ease from one way of life to another, never quite satisfied by the opportunities made available to her, mostly because they are so narrowly confined. She keeps looking for a place, a situation, a way of life that will let her be truly herself, truly free.

She begins in Naxos in segregated South America, as a teacher in an all African American institution set up to show off white magnanimity. White preachers teach the students how to make the best of what God has given them, to be modest and dress in dark colours, to be inoffensive and unobtrusive. The novel opens with Helga unable to stand another day in the place. 

Not only does she live in Chicago, in Brooklyn and in Amsterdam, her charm and intelligence helping her to get the best of what each of these experiences has to offer, she also explores how she feels about what it means to have dark skin in America and in Europe. And through it all she is trailed by a series of marriage proposals and the lingering desire for the newly appointed principal of the Naxos school she leaves so early in the book.

She is popular wherever she goes, but everywhere carries its own expectations of her behaviour, its own rules about what she should or shouldn’t do. Relatives of her white mother ask her to live with them in Amsterdam where their life of relative luxury seems initially incredibly appealing, but they dress her up, suggesting she wear certain things, do certain things, take tea with certain people, all to use her exoticism to enhance their social standing. Europe offers greater freedom but ultimately leaves her feeling misunderstood and isolated. 

I’m saying far too much about the plot of the novel. I don’t want to tell you where it ends as Helga’s own inability to follow one particular path creates its own constraints. Let’s just say, Nella Larsen is brave enough to end the book in a place that both mocks Helga and makes a clear statement about the suffering induced by systemic racism. It’s fabulous. Gripping and relatable, this is a voice I’m delighted to have discovered.

In Passing, Nella Lawsen once again takes us into the world of race relations. It was interesting reading it not long after The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Both explore the lives of pale-skinned black women who choose to ‘pass’ as white. Passing feels like a very important book for modern times. With an F. Scott Fitzgerald Great Gatsby feel to it, Irene’s narrative is all about her interaction with the glamorous Clare, a childhood friend she runs into on the roof terrace of a hotel in New York when taking a break from shopping. She has chosen not to draw attention to her black heritage, instead enjoying a cool drink before heading home. Clare turns up with a white man, clearly passing for a white woman, and renews their acquaintance much to Irene’s dismay. She is at once drawn to Clare and afraid both for and of her. What effect will running into Clare have on Irene’s life? Read it and find out. It’s riveting. Let’s just say the play on the word passing used as the title is something you only fully understand at the end of the story. 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading these two novels and like Maya Angelou said ‘Discovering Nella Larsen is like finding lost money with no name on it. One can enjoy it with delight and share it without guilt’. I’ll be reviewing Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham next.