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Friday, 10 January 2014

Book Review: Quicksand/Passing by Nella Larsen

The beauty of both these novels was that, however short, I still came away with the sense of having lived a great length of time with the characters. That's not a bad achievement when you consider that Quicksand comes in at 135 pages and Passing at 99 in the edition I own. Nevertheless, these two novels are exceptional, both in terms of content and execution.

Quicksand, a loosely autobiographical novel, tells the story of Helga Crane. Helga is essentially dissatisfied with her life, unable to articulate precisely what it is she wants - or where she belongs - as the product of a black father and a white mother. We first encounter Helga as she decides to leave the black boarding school in which she teaches, though her resolve is almost shaken by a meeting with the principle, Dr Anderson. She travels first to Chicago, where she is turned away by her maternal uncle's new wife, then on to New York. From there she goes to Copenhagen to visit her maternal aunt then she returns to New York, ostensibly for her friend's marriage to Dr Anderson but also because the creeping dissatisfaction that always seems to plague her has returned. After a chance encounter with a religious group, she marries a Southern preacher and moves to Alabama. Inevitably, though, this fails to lead to the happiness she hoped it would.

Helga's journeys are about exploring her dissatisfaction - what she wants from life and what she wants from a husband - but it also explores her roles in the various places she attempts to situate herself. In the boarding school, she detests the philosophy, in New York she finds herself bored by constant references to the racial cause while in Copenhagen she is a curiosity. Her hopes that her desires - physical and spiritual - will be fulfilled by marriage to the Southern preacher are soon dashed. Ultimately, Quicksand is a novel about belonging and desire and the sad reality of those hopes.

The chapters are short, frustratingly so, I thought when I first started reading. But then I began to appreciate the snapshots given by Larsen - further elaboration wasn't necessary. It also had the added effect of making Helga almost the only important character. Others passed through the pages but we don't really know them. In terms of focusing solely on Helga's experiences, this is very effective. In addition, the scant descriptions used to situate chapters in time and place are wonderfully evocative. Larsen's chief talent, perhaps, is making so much out of so little.

Passing tells of Irene Redfield and her friendship with Clare Kendry. They knew each other when they were younger in Chicago, sharing the fact that they are of mixed ancestry. By chance, Irene encounters Clare when she returns to visit her family and is fascinated by her, though also nettled by the fact that Clare 'passes' for white, which Irene herself could legitimately do if she so wished. At a tea with Clare and another friend, she encounters Clare's husband, John Bellew, a virulent racist whose views expose the threat Clare is under. Years later, Clare surprises Irene in New York after Irene has ignored her letter. Clare, it seems, misses her own kind and starts flirting with danger, visiting New York's black communities without her husband's knowledge. However, Irene also starts to suspect that something is going on between Clare and her own husband, leading to a brutal finale.

The main focus of this novel is people 'passing' for white and it takes up a lot of space. However, there are also readings underneath of sexual identity, with Irene's fascination for Clare provoking her into contradicting herself and over-thinking. Whatever the 'truth' of the situations within the novel are is never made clear, but there is enough suggested to make Passing linger long after reading. The climax, also, is one so surprising that it will probably haunt me for some time yet.

This book was read as part of the TBR Challenge 2014, details here.

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