Friday, 14 June 2013

Book Review: Passing by Nella Larsen
Human society is a multi-layered and unstable playing board for the complex game called life. Players are constantly changing and so are all kinds of circumstances, but we don’t have much of a choice. Either we draw or we perish. Sometimes we try to bend the rules in our favour or we cheat. Either of it is an additional risk that might pay or not. On the long run we always have to face reality as it really is. In her novel Passing Nella Larsen wrote down the story of two women with a similar background who chose very different strategies to play the game of life.

The writer Nella Larsen put much of her own experience as an African-American woman in a white neighbourhood and a white family into her story. She was born by a Danish mother in Chicago, USA, in April 1891, but her father was an African-American from the West-Indies. Nella Larsen only published some short stories and two much acclaimed novels: Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). After false accusations of plagiarism regarding her short story Sanctuary (1930) and a messy divorce she disappeared from the literary scene for good. Nella Larsen died in New York, USA, in March 1964. 

Passing is set in Chicago during the 1920s when slavery was long abolished in the USA, but racial segregation laws were in force that until the 1960s legalized discrimination as well as open racism in American society and that hampered the efforts of the African-American population to get equal opportunities and equal rights. Another, maybe less obvious dimension of the novel is the question of social standing and roles of women and men respectively. The key issue that Nella Larsen addresses is the search for identity as an individual, black or white, woman or man, low or high. 

The story of Passing focuses on two African-American women whose light complexion allows them to ‘pass’ for white, but although born in the same neighbourhood their attitude to passing could hardly be more different. Clare Kendry lives the life of a white married woman completely denying her black heritage and even concealing it from her rich white husband who is a racist. Irene Redfield, on the other hand, is the wife of an African-American doctor and a much respected member of the black community who allows herself to pass only occasionally to enjoy a small and innocent pleasure. 

In the beginning Clare and Irene, who haven’t seen each other for years, meet by chance in an elegant restaurant closed to African-Americans. Clare’s life as a white woman leaves Irene with conflicting feelings. She clearly disapproves of Clare’s choice, but at the same time she is fascinated. To reconnect Clare with the black community Irene invites her to a dance. Thereafter Irene sees her identity as an African-American even more challenged and that as a woman, too, when Clare and her husband are beginning an affair later on. At last, Irene is driven to put a violent end to the mess that Clare caused.

In Passing Nella Larsen painted a very vivid and realistic picture of the black community in Chicago. Obviously ‘passing’ for white was quite an issue at the time because several writers belonging to the Harlem Renaissance took up the topic. The novel gave me an interesting insight into a world that is not only past and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but also very different from everything I know. On the other hand, we all know situations in which we pretend to be someone who we aren’t only to be accepted by a group, don’t we? 

All in all, Passing by Nella Larsen was an interesting and instructive read that I enjoyed very much. The slim novel was definitely worth the little time that reading cost me. I liked it and thus I recommend it with great pleasure.


  1. This definitely sounds like a book to open up a discussion! Your review had me interested in not only the book, Passing, but the author. I've added it to my Goodreads tbr shelf. Great review!

    1. Thank you very much for your comment, Kate! It's great to see that my reviews are being appreciated and that they actually inspire some to read and discuss the books that I present... or to learn more about their authors.

      Nella Larsen must have been an impressing person and she certainly had an unusual life. Maybe I'll write her short portrait here some other time.


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