Thursday, 30 November 2017

Passing by Nella Larsen

Passing by Nella Larsen
First published in America in 1929.

Where to buy this book:

How I got this book:
Bought the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First published to critical acclaim in 1929, Passing firmly established Nella Larsen's prominence among women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The Modern Library is proud to present Passing--an electrifying story of two women who cross the color line in 1920s New York--together with a new Introduction by the Obie Award- winning playwright and novelist Ntozake Shange.

Irene Redfield, the novel's protagonist, is a woman with an enviable life. She and her husband, Brian, a prominent physician, share a comfortable Harlem town house with their sons. Her work arranging charity balls that gather Harlem's elite creates a sense of purpose and respectability for Irene. But her hold on this world begins to slip the day she encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare--light-skinned, beautiful, and charming--tells Irene how, after her father's death, she left behind the black neighborhood of her adolescence and began passing for white, hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband.

As Clare begins inserting herself into Irene's life, Irene is thrown into a panic, terrified of the consequences of Clare's dangerous behavior. And when Clare witnesses the vibrancy and energy of the community she left behind, her burning desire to come back threatens to shatter her careful deception.

I was attracted to Passing by its having been written by a black woman in 1920s America. I've read historical fiction set in this location and era, but don't think I've previously read a female-authored book actually written at that time. Passing is an interesting glimpse into the lives of one woman, Irene, who believes herself happy with her black life and family, and Irene's childhood friend Clare who is 'passing' as white and has a white husband.

Disappointingly, this book is only a novella. I like Larsen's writing style, especially the clever way she portrays tense and awkward situations between her characters. I could easily empathise with Irene. Her inability to stand up to Clare is completely understandable. And Larsen does a good job of setting scenes, making them easy to picture in my mind. However, I wanted her to delve more deeply into the complicated relationships between her characters and there just isn't the space to do this in such a short book.

Passing begins as a black person pretending to be white. Irene in particular muses on the phenomenon - what exactly race means to her and whether it has the same meaning for Clare. This meaning morphs as the story progresses and I could see characters deceiving each other further by passing as friends where no friendship really exists. This is a thought-provoking novella which could make for lengthy (and possibly heated!) book group discussions.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Nella Larsen / Contemporary fiction / Books from America


  1. I would have probably love this for the reason you were disappointed :) I'm very much into novellas because I'm often too exhausted to read. Especially if the writing and characterization are good as they seems to be :)

    1. That's what is so fab about books - we can all appreciate them differently!