Well, I don’t know how any of the classics I read next can possibly measure up the 1929 Harlem Renaissance-era novel Passing by Nella Larsen.
It’s a quick read, clocking in at around 122 pages. And those pages are packed with tightly focused prose which, along with the set-up of the book, felt very much like a play.
The book is divided into three parts, like acts in a play: Encounter, Re-encounter, and Finale.
Throughout each, protagonist Irene Redfield encounters and re-encounters former schoolmate Clare Kendry Bellew in both Chicago (their hometown) and New York.
Both women are black, specifically African American. Both are light-skinned. The book examines the consequences of the various ways in which the women have chosen to “pass” or not pass as white in society.
Irene married a black man, Brian, after school and they have a family. She passes when it’s convenient to do so. For example, in the first scene, she’s actually passing when she stops at a fancy hotel to have some iced tea and recover from the summer heat. That’s where she runs into Clare, also passing.
But Clare’s situation is different. She is living a secret life, totally passing as a white woman. In fact, she has married a white man who doesn’t know she’s not white. And—dramatic pause—that man is a terrible racist.
The re-encounter actually takes place at Clare’s home in New York City, where Clare’s husband comes home and, not knowing that Irene, along with another school friend who passes, are black, spouts off with a number of racists slurs, even jokingly greeting his wife with one.
The irony is incredible. The language and outright racism are shocking to me. But, I’m not on the receiving end of any racism, so I’m guessing the disgusting jokes are all things many black Americans have heard before, in general if not directed at them.
The relationship between Irene and Clare is at the center of this book. It’s the lens through which race and the idea of passing are examined. Their interactions reveal their emotions and motivations around passing, as well as what leads each to the final action of the novel.
There are moments of incredible irony and even moments of humor. Larsen manages to elegantly pack in a wealth of themes in addition to that of race, from women’s friendship to marriage and adultery. The writing is lovely. The setting, against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, gives one a real sense of the era.
I’m off to read more about Nella Larsen’s life. I know she has a couple of other books, most notably the novel Quicksand, which I will also be reading.