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Quicksand and Passing

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  3,691 ratings  ·  129 reviews
"Quicksand and Passing are novels I will never forget. They open up a whole world of experience and struggle that seemed to me, when I first read them years ago, absolutely absorbing, fascinating, and indispensable."--Alice Walker

"Discovering Nella Larsen is like finding lost money with no name on it. One can enjoy it with delight and share it without guilt."  --Maya Angel
Paperback, 246 pages
Published April 1st 1986 by Rutgers University Press (first published 1928)
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Corryn Yes, it is. There's nothing explicit enough for a high school senior to not be able to handle.

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3.92  · 
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 ·  3,691 ratings  ·  129 reviews

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Nov 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Travelers to the Harlem Renaissance
Recommended to Cheryl by: Amanda & Aubrey
To lose oneself in the mire of identity crisis, discontented with life, love, and career. To seek true meaning and purpose, only to find that it eludes you:
Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent. She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it. As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerabl
Feb 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Inderjit Sanghera
Sep 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Few writers are able to capture the sense of alienation engendered by the deeply-embedded racism of America like Nella Larsen. Larsen explores not so much the ostensible side of racial politics in America, but instead explores the more insidious nature of racism, of the deeply embedded prejudices in American society which stripped African-Americans of their humanity, of the links between this and the perpetuation of the dominance of the white population, of the little things, such as the affecte ...more
May 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: modernism
Passing is one of the best books I have ever read. The conflicts in that novel are so complex and tightly composed that while reading it, I feel so conflicted and torn I can barely breathe. Beautiful language, fascinating story, complicated and well-constructed characters. This book is excellent in every way possible.
Oct 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Coming-of-age, woman as child, young woman with all the potential of a child until she foolishly marries an ugly man for a house, for God, for the chance to give up responsibility for her own foolishness.

Helga Crane goes from Naxos, a prestigious school dedicated to Negro uplift - call it the nonprofit sector - to suddenly realizing that she hated the hypocrisy of do-good work. When she quits Naxos at 23, declaring how much she hates it, her boss calmly looks at her and says, " Twenty-three, I s
Jun 15, 2007 rated it really liked it
In many ways Larsen presents her female characters as Romantic heroines trapped in a Naturalist novel. As the poet W.B. Yeats has lyrically expressed, they’re “sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal.” That dying animal is embodied in many ways in "Quicksand" and "Passing," from sterile or racist environments (such as Naxos and Clare's home life with Bellew), to the fragile limitations of the female body, to the institutions of marriage and the responsibilities of motherhood. In a brutal ...more
Jul 12, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: rachel
After reading both of these novels I was so sad to find that after some scandal about plagarism Larsen abandoned her writing. I wish, I wish, I wish she had written more.
These are the only two novels written by Nellie Larsen. Both share themes from her life - being bi-racial, living in Chicago and Harlem and marriage. These are both well written with complex female characters . In Quicksand we follow Helga who struggles to find her place. She undergoes cycles of searching, finding temporary fulfillment and then being trapped. Whereas in Passing we have two women, Irene and Clare who are light enough to pass as white and have diverse lives. These two women meet b ...more
Anne Rioux
Feb 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Not an easy read nor a happy one. Best not to read the introduction first (why do they always give away the ending?), but it helps you understand why Larsen made some of the choices she did. We had a great week in class discussing this book. It opened up a lot of students' eyes about the peculiar racism and sexism that mixed-race women have experienced (and continue to).
Mel Bossa
Great learning experience for me as far as being in the head and heart of a bi-racial woman living in Harlem during the Renaissance (20s and 30s), but though I fully appreciate the tenacity and talent it must have taken Nella Larsen to write such novels in those days and the sacrifices she had to endure later, dying in anonymity as a nurse in New York, I still found the books a little too forgettable for what I was expecting.

I disliked both narrators: Helga (Quicksand) and Irene (Passing), and f
May 13, 2008 added it
Recommends it for: all readers
I completed Quicksand months ago, and its taken me this long to process the lessons in this story. The main character's appetite for self-satisfaction is insatiable- this leads to indecision and confusion in many facets of her life. Often I think fear can dictate our sense of personal well-being and social acceptance of our choices; here, the fear of making a choice that would stun others was a constant reason behind many of our subject's decisions. Without living a life of her own from a very y ...more
Erica Freeman
Oct 08, 2007 rated it really liked it
Read these novellas a number of times over the years. They were a big part of my master's thesis about mixed race Af-Am women and the concept of the "cyborg", a being existing within apparently contradictory identities.
Truusje Truffel
Apr 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Er nooit echt bij horen

Nella Larsen (13 april 1891 - 30 maart 1964) was een schrijfster in de Harlem Renaissance, een artistieke Afro-Amerikaanse schrijvers- en kunstenaarsgroep die in de twintiger jaren van de 20e eeuw was ontstaan.
Ze was van gemengd bloed, met een van oorsprong Deense moeder en een gekleurde vader uit Deens-West-Indië, een kolonie in de Caraïben die destijds behoorde aan Denemarken.

Toen haar vader overleed, trouwde haar moeder met Peter Larsen, een Deense man die Nella haar ni
Nella Larsen did not produce much fiction: these two novellas and some short stories comprise all of her published work. I felt that the novellas Quicksand and Passing were the work of a writer who had not quite reached the height of her powers. That being said, they're both very strong, Passing in particular. Quicksand meanders a little too much, without getting to the heart of its central character, but Passing is a deft, insightful piece of work, with a twist I wasn't expecting. Both novels, ...more
Lola Allen
Apr 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed reading both of Nella Larsen's stories and I love the way she writes. She is a very skillful writer, you only have to read a few of her well crafted sentences to see that writing comes naturally to her.

The way she created the 'tragic heroine' or 'tragic mulatto' as was the term attributed to such protagonists in those days, was very touching. You couldn't help but feel for the heroines and what they were going through. You're happy when they're happy, torn when they're torn and
Derek Baad
Aug 17, 2008 rated it really liked it
I read Quicksand, the first novella in this book, as part of the MA exam reading list, and though I was a little resistant at first, it eventually won me over. Following Helga Crane as she escapes a prominent but stifling faculty position at a southern all-black school to move to Chicago, Harlem, Copenhagen, back to Harlem and finally to rural Alabama. With each new place she goes through the same emotional cycle of elation, irritation, then rejection as she moves on to a change of scenery and p ...more
Apr 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
After reading these two powerful short stories, Nella Larsen is now up there with one of my favorite authors. Both stories beautifully depict the restless and beleaguered spirit of smart, young, black women in 20th century America. What is so striking is how much I related to the feelings, emotions and internal battles of the characters. Despite it being of another time, I think many women, especially women of color, will resonate with the suffocating limitations of race, class and gender that t ...more
Oct 24, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: i-own-it, 2013
I only read "Passing," because it was the one assigned for my Major American Writers class. Maybe sometime I will read "Quicksand."

This story was interesting. I thought the writing style was often hard to follow. It didn't really flow that naturally. But I did enjoy the descriptions, and there are a lot of beautiful sentences in it.

The ending was strange. Definitely left open to interpretation. Overall a fine story, nothing exceptional about it, but not bad.
Nov 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A light and yet incredibly intricate novel that throws into question every notion about identity -- the title is rather odd, in that in combines two separate short novels, the first mediocre, the second brilliant, but entirely appropriate, because Passing is a novel of intellectual quicksand, likely to trouble some your habitual ways of thinking and feel you are on slippery ground.
Oct 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
the harlem renaissance is the only historical era i care one whit about, and these two novellas represent some of my favorite writing from it. i re-read them often. i think they're incredibly evocative and mercurial; for a long time, i've had a fantasy of writing a treatment of *passing* as a full-length film. but i'm too lazy.
Sep 10, 2010 rated it liked it
Nella Larson was an author that was thought of as crazy, a liar, a plagiarist in which she simply vanished for awhile in her career. But this book is very insightful. Some believe that Helga, the protaganist in Quicksand, is a biography of Larson's life itself. But the two books are seen as a movement, filled with sexual desire and the representation of one's race. Overall a great read!
Jul 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
These two novels were really fascinating. They explored issues facing African-American women during the Harlem Renaissance era, particularly light skinned women. There is a tremendous emphasis on liminal figures in these books--African-Americans marginalized by race, lesbianism repressed and projected, and individuals passing between race and through sexualities.
Apr 30, 2009 added it
Just wrote a 15-page final paper on this book, although I greatly enjoyed both stories, am happy to put my earmarked/post-it-noted/highlighted copy DOWN. :)
Oct 05, 2015 rated it did not like it
Someone shoot me if I ever express the desire to read this again
Jeanne McDonald
Sep 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
My heart ached throughout the whole of the novel. Both stories beautiful pieces of prose, reflective and thought-provoking.
Feb 02, 2010 rated it liked it
Read this one in my first year working for a school. I liked it a lot and so did the 11th graders.
Dec 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
Mild spoilers (I try to be vague about the endings).

This edition (Rutgers University Press, 1986) brings together two amazing Harlem Renaissance novels by Nella Larsen, both concerning mixed race young women in the 1920s.

In Quicksand the protagonist Helga is a lovely, intelligent young woman who travels to a number of places to visit family or make friends and find a home. However, she is restless from the very beginning and the constant search for identity and belonging repeatedly eludes her. S
Feb 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I’ve read reviews of these two novels that focus on the sexuality of the characters. The summary for Quicksand here on Goodreads even says as much. I just didn’t see it. I think people are reading too much into the language of the times. Both novels prominently deal with race and fitting in, something that possibly Nella Larsen struggled with her entire life. Her mother was a Danish immigrant and her father was black. Her mother remarried to a white man and Nella grew up in a white immigrant hou ...more
She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race. Or, it might be, all three. Nothing, she imagined, was ever more completely sardonic.

Question: could the idea of Passing being contemporary enough to merit a movie despite having been written in the 1920s be even more sardonic?

Not too m
Moses Hetfield
May 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Moses by: Prof. Allyson Hobbs
This book contains two novellas by Nella Larson, Quicksand and Passing. Both are stories about the experiences of biracial African-American women in the 1920s. Quicksand tells the story of Helga, an African-American woman raised by her Danish-American mother and white family, and her struggles to fit in in the South, Harlem, and Denmark. Passing is told from the perspective of Irene, a light-skinned African-American, but is really about Clare, a friend (if that's the right word) of Irene's who p ...more
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Nellallitea 'Nella' Larsen (first called Nellie Walker) was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote two novels and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, what she wrote earned her recognition by her contemporaries and by present-day critics.