The American writer Nella Larsen was born in Chicago in the 1890s, the daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian father. Her 1928 novella, Quicksand – inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – features a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world.
As the novella opens, Larsen’s protagonist, Helga Crane, is teaching at Naxos, a boarding school for black girls in the South. Helga has no real family to speak of, her Danish mother having died when she was a teenager, while her West Indian father is no longer on the scene. Right from the very start, it’s clear that Helga feels out of place in her surroundings, ill at ease in her own skin and with her position in society. Part white and part black, Helga is not entirely comfortable in either of these two racial groups, a situation that leaves her feeling stranded in a kind of hinterland or liminal space.
She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity. (p. 7)
Her engagement to James Vayle, a fellow teacher at Naxos, is also a source of tension, especially for James’ family, who view Helga’s background and uncertain ancestry as undesirable complications.
Early in the book, Helga decides to leave Naxos (and James) because she feels uncomfortable with the institution’s ‘uplift’ philosophy which she views as hypocritical. Essentially the school’s belief that black people should try to fit into society by mirroring their white counterparts imposes limits on diversity and individuality – difficulties that Helga can see even if others around her cannot. As a consequence of her fundamental discomfort at Naxos, Helga quits her job at the school and travels to Chicago, where she hopes to find another role.
In Chicago, a long and fruitless search for a job ensues, hampered by Helga’s lack of references or personal sponsors. Nevertheless, just when things are looking particularly desperate, Helga manages to secure a temporary job as an assistant to a travelling female lecturer. It’s a role that opens doors for Helga, bringing her to New York, where she is introduced to Anne Grey, a well-connected, financially independent black woman who offers her a home.
For a while at least, Helga feels settled in Harlem. Her days are occupied by a secretarial role at an insurance company, while her nights are spent at parties and the theatre, activities that appear to blot out the isolation of her previous existence.
For her this Harlem was enough. Of that white world, so distant, so near, she asked only indifference. No, not at all did she crave, from those pale and powerful people, awareness. Sinister folk, she considered them, who had stolen her birthright. Their past contribution to her life, which had been but shame and grief, she had hidden away from brown folk in a locked closet, “never,” she told herself, “to be reopened.” (p. 45)
Larsen, however, remains alert to the hypocrisies that exist in this sector of society, primarily through the character of Anne Grey. While Anne models her life on the refined culture of white society and campaigns for racial equality, she also believes that integration between the two races is indecent – something to be discouraged for its transgressive associations.
After a year or so in Harlem, the glow begins to fade. Restlessness sets in, leaving Helga feeling isolated and estranged from those around her, particularly Anne with her inherent inconsistencies. As a consequence, Helga decides to travels to Denmark in the hope of reconnecting with her Aunt Katerina, whom she recalls fondly from her childhood.
I found this section of the book particularly distressing to read because of the way Helga is treated by Katerina and her husband, Herr Dahl. While Katerina seems welcoming and well-meaning on the surface, in truth she is intent on parading Helga around as if she is some kind of pet – an exotic curiosity to be stared at and admired for her distinctive appearance and otherness.
Helga herself felt like nothing so much as some new and strange species of pet dog being proudly exhibited. Everyone was very polite and very friendly, but she felt the massed curiosity and interest, so discreetly hidden under the polite greetings. The very atmosphere was tense with it. (p. 70)
She liked the compliments in the men’s eyes as they bent over her hand. She liked the subtle half-understood flattery of her dinner partners. The women too were kind, feeling no need for jealousy. To them this girl, this Helga Crane, this mysterious niece of the Dahls, was not to be reckoned seriously in their scheme of things. True, she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t at all count. (p. 70)
This fetishisation of black culture and individuals remains a problem in modern-day society, so it’s fascinating to read a novel from the 1920s that highlights these issues so clearly. Nevertheless, while it’s refreshing to see these subjects being explored by Larsen with insight and humanity, the novel also indicates how little has really changed. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s 2013 novel, Americanah, in which a white woman’s well-meaning attempts to establish a connection with a young black woman – a potential employee named Ifemelu – come across as misguided and patronising.)
The Dahls persist in dressing Helga in glamorous, eye-catching clothes, clearly designed to attract attention – a practice that Larsen uses to highlight issues of objectification and the white male gaze. Interestingly (and somewhat disturbingly), the previous quote also makes it clear that Danish women do not consider Helga a personal threat despite her natural beauty. To them, she is an outsider with limited status or agency, easily dismissed as an exotic curio or ‘peacock’ without being allowed to enter their society.
In the final section of the narrative, Helga changes direction again, which chimes with Larsen’s use of ‘Quicksand’ as the novella’s title. It’s a powerful ending that feels somewhat surprising yet also sadly inevitable in a tragic kind of way.
Larsen manages to pack quite a lot into this slim novella. Alongside the central themes relating to race and segregation in society, the author touches on identity, female desire, religion, poverty, objectification and self-loathing. Ultimately though, there is an air of tragedy surrounding Helga as she struggles to find a sense of belonging in this highly segregated society, where her mixed-race ancestry creates barriers to self-expression and emotional fulfilment. She is a complicated character who frequently adopts a self-sufficient, standoffish manner to repel those around her. In essence, this is a protective mask, something she learned to embrace from a young age as a way of guarding her inherently sensitive nature.
There is a richness to Larsen’s prose at times, drawing on the use of colour and evocative descriptions to help bring Helga’s story to life. As a result, there are some wonderful descriptive passages in this striking, thought-provoking book – a text that remains highly relevant today. (I’ve yet to read Passing, Larsen’s companion novel, but hope to do so before Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation is released.)
Quicksand and Passing are published by Serpent’s Tail; my thanks to the publishers and Independent Alliance for a reading copy.
This book sounds quite remarkable and well ahead of its time. I don’t know this author at all, but will be following her up.
I came across her in 2014 when this Serpent’s Tail edition came out, mostly because one or two of the readers I follow were blogging/tweeting about it at the time. She’s probably best known in the US, where Passing (the companion novella I’ve yet to read) is taught in college — Janakay’s comment below mentions a module on the Harlem Renaissance, which included Larsen. Also, the actor Rebecca Hall has adapted Passing for the screen as her directorial debut. I’ve seen some great reviews from Sundance, where it premiered earlier this year – hence the nudge to read Larsen’s work!
Thanks for this link The film sounds so sensitive and quite beautifully done.
Yes, Tim Robey also raved about it in The Telegraph, but that’s paywalled, I think. The Guardian’s review (by Benjamin Lee) was much less positive, although that seems to be something of an outlier in the pack.
Thank you Jacqui. Having read your review, I immediately added Quicksand to my wish list, it sounds like the type of book I would enjoy.
I read Nella Larsen’s “Passing” some time ago, and initially thought that it was very well written, but that perhaps it hadn’t really withstood the passing of time. My mistake. Having recently read “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennet, which deals with the same subject matter, I realized what a great author Nella Larsen was, and how, in a short novella, so poignant and subtle, she succeeds where the blockbuster best-selling “Vanishing Half” with its endless narrative twists and its plethora of issues and characters, completely fails. One can’t avoid the comparison. If you read both novels, it just jumps at you.
That was a very long and round about way of thanking you for your review and for a great add to my TBR list.
Oh, you’re very welcome – and thanks for such an interesting comment! I haven’t read The Vanishing Half myself, although I do recall other readers drawing comparisons with Passing due to the central premise of the book. Based on your description of the Bennett, I think I would prefer the subtlety of Passing. The condensed ‘rawness’ of Quicksand works really well to convey Larsen’s story – perhaps all the more so due to its semi-autobiographical nature. I’d be interested to hear what you think, should you get a chance to read it.
Well, I’ve never read Passing but I thought that The Vanishing Half was more than just a bestseller. ‘Passing’ was inflicted on light-skinned Indigenous people here in Australia and it occurred in Apartheid South Africa too so there were resonances for readers beyond the US. (It’s reviewed on my blog if you are interested.
Thanks, Lisa. That’s useful to hear. I’d like to read Passing first, so I’ll wait until then to check out your review of the Bennett. :)
Gret review, Jacqui. I read both Quicksand and Passing when they were first reissued, dismayed by how relevant they still were and, of course, still are now. Of the two, I found Passing even more sobering. Both are such brave books for their time.
Thanks, Susan. Yes, I agree – this seems quite progressive for its time. Provocative, even. I wonder how it was received by the literary world and broader society in general. I’ll have to do a bit of digging around on that…
I’ve been meaning to read Passing for a whole now Jacqui, but this sounds interesting too. Powerful stuff.
Yes, Susan just described both novellas as ‘sobering’ which is spot on in terms of a description (certainly for Quicksand). I’m hoping to read Passing fairly soon, before the film lands on Netflix.
Great review! I found Larsen when I took a course on the Harlem Renaissance; a fabulous experience that introduced me to both Larsen (Passing was one of our “required” books) and Jean Toomer (his Cane is also a tremendous work). I didn’t get around to Quicksand until last year.
You perfectly caught Helga’s dilemma of belonging to neither black nor white society. I think, and it’s interesting to see this, that Larsen was as hard on the black bourgeoise as she was on the white middle class. The episode in Denmark was indeed cringe-inducing — Helga’s Danish family clearly views her as exotic “pet” they can use to leverage their way into the artistic and literary circles her aunt longs to frequent. But — Helga’s brief teaching stint is equally painful. With her taste for luxury, rich colors and individual expression, her black colleagues (not to mention her very middle-class fiancee’s family) regard her (as you point out) as an impediment to racial “uplift” (the school she worked in was modeled on Booker T Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute, dedicated to providing not just education but vocational training to former enslaved people so they could “justify” acceptance by whites). Many blacks, including Helga’s friend Anne Grey, are very hostile to Helga’s mixed racial heritage (she’s advised not to mention her Danish mother to anyone in Harlem). Poor Helga just wants to be Helga, but neither blacks nor whites can accept her; each group insist she conform to its own racial stereotypes.
I saw Helga’s frequently self-destructive choices, as well as her restlessness and inability to settle on a viable mode of existences (and she did have an opportunity or two in this respect), as a product of the internalized self-loathing that a racist (and sexist) society induces in members of the less favored caste. This induced self-loathing frequently results in the kind of behavior (alcoholism, drug use, crime) that the dominant group then uses to justify repressive measures on members of the less favored group.
Unlike many readers, I actually prefer Quicksand, which it’s strongly autobiographical feel, to Passing, which most regard as the more polished work.
Many thanks for such a fascinating series of observations – yes, you’re spot on! I found that whole section on Harlem so interesting. As you say, the college lecturer warns Helga not to say anything about her white heritage to Anne Grey, who I found pretty hypocritical yet entirely believable as a character. And you’re right, there *is* a self-destructive/self-loathing aspect to Helga’s behaviour. I found that so sad – almost tipping over into self-harm at times. It’s a shame that Larsen wrote (or secured publication for) so little as she was clearly very talented…
I’ll skim this for the moment, Jacqui, as I’ve been meaning to read this and its companion piece for ages – and might try to get to them during Novellas in November. I think they’d be ideal for that!
Good idea! I’ll be interested to see what you think…
Great review. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, finally reading it at the time my book picked Passing, which I was re-reading in time for our discussion. Larsen does pack a lot in it, so much about race segregation and the society Larsen would have experienced herself. Having read Passing twice, I think that is a superior novella, but Quicksand has really stayed with me, the complex character of Helga is just so well explored, she remains very memorable.
Yes, you’re right about Helga and the complexity in her character. I suspect that degree of depth/shading must have stemmed from Larsen’s own personal experiences — and the maelstrom of emotions they would have generated. Passing sounds excellent, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it – hopefully before the film hits the screens!
This sounds remarkable – my copy of Passing wasn’t bound with this and I regret that!
Oh, that’s a pity. It’s well worth tracking down…
I have this waiting for me so I didn’t read your review in depth Jacqui but I’ll come back to it and the comments!
No worries, Jane. I do the same for books I’m thinking of reading in the near future. We can always compare thoughts later. :)
Nella Larsen is one of those rare writers where I feel like not a word in her work is wasted and yet there is much richness and subtlety to it. If you get the chance the few short stories she wrote are excellent too though I don’t know how easy they are to track down.
Oh, thanks for the tip about her short stories, I’ll take a look. As you say, her style is very interesting – rich and textured, particularly in the way she conveys character and emotion. It’s not overly lyrical or poetic, but there’s something very evocative about it all the same.
I liked Passing better than Quicksand, to be honest.
Passing was a book club choice a few months ago and made for an excellent discussion – I would echo your point about packing a lot in, particularly presenting the reader with the dilemmas of her characters. (I may have bought it in this edition which would mean I still have Quicksand to read).
Passing sounds excellent, and I’m very much looking forward to it. As you say, Larsen’s technique is very interesting. We really get a sense of the complexities in Helga’s character – the conflicting emotions she experiences make her feel very real / authentic.
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This sounds incredible in packing in so much into such a short novella. I’ve not read Larsen but I’ll look out for her, she sounds a powerful writer.
Yes, very. I actually picked this up with the intention of reading Passing before the film adaptation comes out later this year, but the fact that I got sucked into Quicksand (without even getting to Passing) says a lot about how thought-provoking it proved to be. You might want to keep it in mind for one of your novella projects, if you’re casting around for future ideas?
I was immediately wondering if this had landed in your stack because of Passing’s upcoming film, and you’ve answered that! Not long ago, someone was talking about a biography. I thought maybe it was Ali, but perhaps I imagined that and she was reading the novel (as described in her comment above).
Yes, the forthcoming film was definitely the prompt. In fact, I picked it up with the intention of reading Passing, only to get sucked in by Quicksand before progressing any further. So, it’s back on the TBR for round 2!
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