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Quicksand

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  4,393 ratings  ·  358 reviews
Born to a white mother and an absent black father, and despised for her dark skin, Helga Crane has long had to fend for herself. As a young woman, Helga teaches at an all-black school in the South, but even here she feels different. Moving to Harlem and eventually to Denmark, she attempts to carve out a comfortable life and place for herself, but ends up back where she sta ...more
ebook, 192 pages
Published April 1st 2010 by Penguin Books (first published 1928)
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Drew Hello Monia. The painting used for the cover is by Archibald Motley who was an African- American visual artist . The painting is entitled 'Mulatress w…moreHello Monia. The painting used for the cover is by Archibald Motley who was an African- American visual artist . The painting is entitled 'Mulatress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape.' He focused mostly on women of mixed racial ancestry, and did numerous portraits documenting women of varying African-blood quantities ("octoroon," "quadroon," "mulatto"). This was in order to show the social implications of the “one drop rule,” and the dynamics of what it means to black.

"They're not all the same color, they're not all black, they're not all, as they used to say years ago, high yellow, they're not all brown. I try to give each one of them character as individuals. And that's hard to do when you have so many figures to do, putting them all together and still have them have their characteristics" (Motley, 1978)

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Braeden Giaconi I would say what it is like to be biracial and struggling to find a sense of community and belonging. But at the same time I feel like Helga's disposi…moreI would say what it is like to be biracial and struggling to find a sense of community and belonging. But at the same time I feel like Helga's disposition was really what caused her so much suffering, and it is hard to say how much of that suffering is a result of her race or her individual personality. I also think that there are universal themes in Quicksand about community and faith, but that's just me. I think most people will be able to find a bit of themselves in Quicksand.(less)
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Average rating 3.68  · 
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 ·  4,393 ratings  ·  358 reviews


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Lisa
Oh, this short novel got under my skin!

You could argue that it is a story about the peculiar hardships of young African American women of the 1920s. And it would be both right and enough to make it a worthwhile reading experience. But there is so much more, touching on the universal and timeless questions of identity and meaning of life. Somehow, Helga Crane’s odyssey through life - from excitement to disappointment, to rebellion, break-out, and new excitement, leading to repeated disappointment
...more
Rowena
I read this book with a couple of close friends in mind, good friends from high school with mixed parentage who felt confused about, but have now resolved, their place in society. Protagonist Helga Crane is a similar such person, with a now-deceased immigrant Danish mother and an absent black father. Being both black and white Helga, “She, Helga Crane, who had no home” is trying to find her place in 1920s New York, where miscegenation is a taboo topic. She is an outcast but she’s so ideally posi ...more
Michael
Dec 23, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019
Slow moving and reflective, Quicksand sketches a detailed portrait of a biracial woman’s inner life. Set in Harlem and Copenhagen at the height of the 1920s, the story follows Helga, born to a Danish mother and an African-American father, as she moves between America and Europe seeking refuge from racism and the social marginalization she faces from white and Black communities alike. Insecure about her identity, Helga’s full of self doubt, feels estranged from wherever she finds herself, and fre ...more
Samadrita
3.5/5

It's galling when a book does not keep the promises it makes at the outset. There's a problematic discord between Larsen's finely crafted sentences and the rather amateurish splicing of theme and plot. And this constant discrepancy morphs into a bothersome enough flaw that is responsible for those 3 stars.
Life wasn't a miracle, a wonder. It was, for Negroes at least, only a great disappointment. Something to be got through with as best one could.

In a way this is a failed bildungsroman w
...more
Fabian
Dec 05, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not as complete or as beautiful as "Passing", though most of the same themes are kept intact. That in a conservative environment nothing changes is absolutely correct--will the times ever change? Looking at the news, at national happenings, the answer is a nice, dark, heavy no.

There are some similarities to Woolf's legendary Clarissa Dalloway--much meditation and inside-the-head narration, with very little poetry, actually. This novel bashes the reader repeatedly in the head: yes, it sucks to be
...more
Paul
Apr 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
4.5 stars
This was Nella Larsen’s first novel, published in 1928 and it has autobiographical elements in it. Helga Crane is the daughter of a white Danish mother and a black father. We follow her over a number of years; initially as a teacher in an all-black school in the south. Then she lives in Chicago and Harlem, before moving to Denmark to stay with her mother’s relatives. A number of suitors pursue her and are brushed aside. Crane returns to America and following a religious experience marri
...more
Aubrey
Worst of all was the fact that she understood and sympathized with Mrs. Nilssen’s point of view, as she always had been able to understand her mother’s, her stepfather’s, and his children’s points of view. She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden. She understood, even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not.
Someone at the helm of NYRB Classics fell asleep at the wheel, for the fact that this work has not yet been granted a rebirth
...more
Zanna
Helga Crane seems awkward and capricious, as introverts (like me) often do, at odds with a world better shaped to the needs of extroverts. But Helga's struggle to find a place for herself, she feels, is caused by her heritage, visible and invisible. Biracial, black, she is rejected by her white family, yet raised among whites, starved of any recognition or respect, finding refuge in aesthetic and intellectual pleasures, both drawn to and repelled by the joyous abandon of Harlem's parties and jaz ...more
Sue
Aug 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After reading Larsen's Passing, I wanted to read her other novella for comparison. Both are concerned with matters of race, the place of black people in the United States of the 1920s and 1930s. Both are at least partially set in Chicago and New York's Harlem. Both refer or reflect, to varying degrees, the Harlem Renaissance. But the protagonists are different, reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of their childhoods, their acceptance of their selves, their marriages, friendships, and above a ...more
Nidhi Singh

They feared and hated her. She pitied and despised them.

It is not just pity and contempt that simmer in this cauldron, but a great deal of ambiguity, loneliness and isolation from wounds that date back to the earliest memories of childhood and are livid within the unremitting cruelty of the present. ‘Quicksand’ is story of a life riddled with an indefiniteness that is an assault on a concrete sense of identity and self. The feeling of happiness is fleeting and so is the feeling of having arrived
...more
Gabrielle
I don't really know how to start reviewing "Quicksand". It is a little book that seems so short, but in less than 200 pages, Larsen created a story that affected me much more than I had anticipated. I was not terribly surprised to learn that the story of Helga Crane is in many ways, very autobiographical: if anything such knowledge gives this novella an even more thought-provoking weight.

When the story opens, Helga Cranes teaches at an elite black college in Alabama, but this position that some
...more
Debbie Zapata
Nov 23, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: saturdaymx
This novel follows the life of Helga Crane as she struggles to find her place in the world. And she must struggle, for she was a mixed-race child in an era when that was a sin marked against her from the day of her birth.

The back cover blurb tells us 'Helga's mother is white, and her father is black ~~ and absent. Ostracized throughout her lonely childhood for her dark skin, Helga spends her adult life seeking acceptance. Everywhere she goes ~~ the American South, Harlem, even Denmark ~~ she fee
...more
Jesse
To begin by stating the obvious: Quicksand is an aptly named book. And while its resonance with the experiences of the main character, Helga Crane, are made clear by the novel’s ambiguous concluding chapter, I also found it a perfect summation of my experience as a reader as well. For Larsen’s exquisite prose is subtly deceptive: delicate, and yet so incisive and sharply observed, and just like Helga’s moment-to-moment indecision never seems to add up to much in and of itself, Larsen quietly str ...more
Kate
3/5stars

I """read""" this for class aka i skimmed it and took notes when we discussed it in class

seems like it'd be a good book though! I just did NOT have time for that lol
Lisa
Apr 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018-favorites
[4.5 stars) Happiness is elusive for Helga Crane. "As always, at first the novelty of the thing, the change, fascinated her. There was a recurrence of the feeling that now, at last, she had found a place for herself, that she was really living."

Set in the 1920s, the novel has a surprisingly modern feeling to it. I find it amazing that in just 125 pages, Larsen captures Helga's experience as a bi-racial woman, in four very different places - teaching at an insular boarding school, amongst the bl
...more
jo
Sep 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
i marvel at the magic that was the harlem renaissance, when african american writers and artists, still fresh from the civil war, during jim fucking crow, carved themselves a space in which to talk about race so freely, so controversially, so open-woundedly, you know the world would not be the same if the harlem renaissance hadn't happened. and thank you thank you thank you harlem renaissance for having opened space for women and queer people with such generosity. wow, what a time.

the language
...more
Lois
This is a fictionalized account of the author's own life and experiences. Extremely Tragic Mulatto.
I find it interesting that 'Helga'/ Nella so accurately read the bullshit self-hating aspect to The Tuskegee Institute under Booker T. Washington, at the same time the main character is very antiblack. The way Helga describes Black People and their culture is demeaning. I've since read this author latter in life 'passes'. I can see that based on how much of her philosphy and outlook makes up this n
...more
Zachary F.
"All interest had gone out of living. Nothing seemed any good. She became a little frightened, and then shocked to discover that, for some unknown reason, it was of herself she was afraid."

In 1928 Nella Larsen published Quicksand and in 1929 she published Passing and then she never published another book again. Both novels are brilliant little enigmas, but the thing that really gets me is that they're brilliant and enigmatic in almost completely different ways.

Passing is short and under
...more
leynes
Feb 06, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: black-writers
In one sense, Quicksand might be called an odyssey; however, instead of overcoming a series of obstacles and finally arriving at her native land, Larsen’s protagonist has a series of adventures, each of which ends in disappointment. Whenever Helga believes that she has found her home, and with it her identity, she eventually comes to realize that she is still just a visitor in someone else’s country.

When Larsen’s novel about the life of Helga Crane appeared in 1928, the Harlem Renaissance was at
...more
Erika Gill
Nov 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm not sure how confident I am about the five stars just yet, this novel hit far too close to home. Quicksand is a bit like a modernist black Madame Bovary, if one wishes to be reductive, and I loved Madame Bovary.

Helga Crane is an unhappy schoolteacher at Naxos in Tennessee, chafing at the isolation and ostracization she feels being a bi-racial, class conscious woman in an all black institution in the South. She's 23 at the opening of the novel. I am 23. Too close!

However, Helga lacks a home
...more
Gill
Sep 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm finding it very hard to write a review of this book. When I finished it a few weeks ago I gave it 4 stars, but it has really stuck in my mind since then, so I've decided to upgrade that to 5 stars.

I think the reason it's stuck in my mind, is that although the story is a specific one, it is looking at a universal issue. That is: how do we manage to fit in and how do we manage to feel at home with different groups of people? This relates to how do we perceive ourselves, and what exactly is i
...more
Elizabeth (Alaska)
Some may think this not as interesting or powerful as her Passing. I don't remember enough of it to feel that way about it and this one is fresh. I think it is just as well no one took my blood pressure over the first half. The racism, both white and black, was enough to make me angry. It makes me angry that race matters to anyone. It makes me mad that our government asks about race on the census. It makes me mad that voting exit polls know which groups are likely to vote how. And there is more, ...more
William
Feb 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to William by: williamc@gmail.com
Like most people in their early twenties, Helga Crane is filled with the desire to be more than she is, to be more entranced by the world than she is, and to see something more of life than her teaching position in the rural South offers. The cure, then, is to dismiss, one after another, the stops on the fickle road to her contentment: her native Chicago, New York's Harlem, Copenhagen's exotic promises. Passed over too are opportunities for extended family, for marriage, and for genuine love. Wh ...more
Subashini
Larsen's prose is crisp and elegant. There is a beautiful simplicity in some of her descriptive passages. It feels light, delicate, effortless.

Some trouble I had with the book is that the main character, Helga Crane, feels elusive and distant. Her thoughts often feel overdetermined and abstract, though in some instances it works well, as in when Larsen is finding a way to make the the political personal, inflecting Helga's thoughts with the philosophy and thinking of black radical politics and
...more
Erin
Jun 21, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: for-school
I found this book to be positively INSUFFERABLE! I understand Helga has an identity crisis because she is mulatto. That in-mind, she is insatiable, spiteful, irrational and then some. If it hadn't been a mandatory reading for class I probably would have dropped this book mid-way through.
I really wish the character Helga would have taken time to reflect on her feelings of ostracism, restlessness and her goals in life. Instead she meanders about living off peoples good will toward her and acting
...more
Zoroasterxiv
Mar 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Given my pessimistic outlook on life at the moment, I quite enjoyed the ending to Quicksand, which, frankly, made sense of the title. The feeling of circumstances spiraling out of control; constantly looking for salvation and finding only mediocrity, pettiness, smallness, and other people who are no help at all certainly magnified my appreciation for Larsen, and her sense of realism. Her place in the African American canon is secure; this novel and Passing are unmissable artifacts of the America ...more
Sunny
Apr 12, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1315-read, all-boxall
I thought this book was going to be about a young woman of mixed race trying to fit in with one or the other side of her heritage. And sure, The Race Issue was mentioned again and again. But for me, the book was more about a young woman's struggle with deciding who she wanted to be when she grew up.

The main character, Helga Crane, is 23 years old at the start of the novel, and doesn't progress beyond her mid-to-late-twenties until nearly the end.

She's a teacher in a black school. A prestigious s
...more
Alex
Does not get off to a great start; the writing is pretty wince-y in the early going:

"Helga ducked her head under the covers in a vain attempt to shut out what she knew would fill the pregnant silence - the sharp sarcastic voice of the dormitory matron. It came."

But she gets over it pretty quick. You can almost watch her learning to write over the course of the book. By the end, she's a little overfond of awkward sentence structures:

"Here, she had found, she was sure, the intangible thing for whi
...more
Sarah
Feb 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017
Well, it's a book about alienation, depersonalization, and a relentless creeping despondence...so I loved it!

This reminded me a lot of Jean Rhys. It's such a shame Larsen's 3rd novel was never published. I know I'd like to read it. It was probably a masterpiece of form and substance. Probably far ahead of its time. Stupid publishers.
Filipa
Jan 15, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Not really my cup of tea. I didn't like the writing - it was difficult to read, sometimes boring. The story itself was not one that grabs the reader. It is difficult to like the characters and even harder to feel some kind of empathy.
For all that, I didn't like this book.
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Reading 1001: Quicksand by Nella Larsen 9 25 Jan 24, 2019 03:48PM  
500 Great Books B...: Quicksand - Nella Larsen - Aubrey 2 21 Jul 29, 2015 12:00AM  
2015: The Year of...: Quicksand by Nella Larsen 2 13 Mar 05, 2015 11:34PM  

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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.

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