Passing was chosen by my second book group (a lovely new feminist group) for our most recent read, we discuss it on Wednesday evening. It was my suggestion – because I already had the book and it seemed it would make a great book for discussion. In 2014 Serpent’s Tail produced an attractive edition of Nella Larsen’s two short novels, Quicksand and Passing in one volume. These two novels (novellas actually might be nearer the mark) are the only ones Nella Larsen wrote, however, despite this, Larsen was highly regarded by her contemporaries and became a part of what was known as the Harlem Renaissance.
I have chosen to read and review each novella separately – spacing out the pleasure of reading Larsen’s work – the writing is absolutely brilliant –such a shame there is so little of it.
“Everything can’t be explained by some general biological phrase.”
Passing is a difficult book to review – partly because it is quite short, but partly because there is in fact so much packed into this hundred page novella that the danger is I say too much. The novel concerns itself with race, identity and the middle-class African-American society of Harlem in the 1920’s. Some of the characters in this novel have a clear racial identity, while others, cross the lines of racial identity as they existed within that society.
Irene Redfield is a woman with a good life, she works hard at organising charity balls, is a big part of local society, married to a doctor with two sons her life is complete. The only shadow on her horizon so far has been her husband’s desire to take the family to Brazil so he can work amongst the poor there. Irene is very pale skinned, although she only chooses to ‘pass’ as white when it is convenient to do so – to get a table at a restaurant that would otherwise be barred to her – Irene identifies as a black woman and is satisfied with her life, her position in Harlem society and her marriage.
All of this is threatened when Irene meets Clare Kendry an old childhood friend. Clare has what Irene calls a ‘having way’ – Irene had lost sight of Clare for more than a decade, and in the years since they last met Clare has spent her life ‘passing.’
“The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.”
Now Clare is lonely for the life and the people she has left behind her. Married to a wealthy racist businessman who has no idea of her true racial identity Clare has been playing a dangerous game. Clare begins to insert herself into Irene’s life, taking more and more risks as she walks the tightrope between two societies. Clare is captivated by the community she once turned her back on, her life outside it has been a tense, colourless existence, and she quickly embraces the world of middle-class Harlem society. Clare is a very beautiful woman, irrepressible and immediately popular with many of Irene’s friends and even her cynical husband, soon Irene realises that her old friend could ruin the respectable, fulfilling life that Irene has worked so hard to build up around her.
“The old fear, with strength increased, the fear for the future, had again laid its hand on her. And, try as she might, she could not shake it off. It was as if she had admitted to herself that against that easy surface of her husband’s concordance with her wishes, which had, since the war had given him back to her physically unimpaired, covered an increasing inclination to tear himself and his possessions loose from their proper setting, she was helpless.”
As a novel, Passing might be slight, but it is huge in its themes, it’s finely and subtly plotted, building to an astonishing, unforgettable climax. It is a novel which offers us a fascinating glimpse of this society in pre-civil rights America.
It will not be long before I read the first novel in this collection, Quicksand which I have heard is outstanding and apparently very autobiographical.