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1001 book reviews > Quicksand by Nella Larsen

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Diane  | 2051 comments Rating: 4 Stars
Read: July 2016

Much like the author of the book, the protagonist is a young bi-racial woman trying to find her niche in society in the early 1900's. She is raised by her white Danish mother in poverty in a white part of the community, where she never feels she fits in. Her Danish-Caribbean father has been out of the picture most of her life. She tries to fit in with the African-American community of the South and in Harlem, but still feels like an outsider. She can't identify with their culture, their music, or their speech, since it isn't what she is accustomed to. She experiences prejudice from people of both races due to both the color of her skin and her social class. She even moves to Denmark with her mother's family to see if life will be different for her there. While she experiences a better standard of living and experiences less discrimination, she is treated more like an exotic conversation piece. Despite her loathing for America, she chooses to return in a quest to find others like herself. Helga sometimes comes across as a bit unlikable, but at the same time, it is also very easy to empathize with her situation. You can feel her pain and isolation.

This book echoed a lot of what I learned in a recent diversity class. Unfortunately, a lot of what she described and experienced is still relevant today. Great book and a great insight into the African-American experience and the challenges faced by people who are members of more than one race.

Daisey | 268 comments This was my February 2018 TBR Challenge book, and it was a perfect read for Black History Month as well as a good follow up to reading Larsen's book Passing in January.

I think that overall I enjoyed this book a little bit more than Passing in that I could better understand the feelings of the main character. She spends almost her entire life searching for a place to fit in and a way to be happy. Although she starts off financially stable and after a short difficult time, continues to find friends and support, none of these these things are enough. From a childhood in Chicago she ends up teaching at a school in the South, goes back to Chicago and then on to Harlem for a while, before even trying life in Denmark before returning to the U.S. I don't want to give any specifics away, but this does not have a hopeful or uplifting ending. The quicksand of the title seems to be the frustrating and unfulfilling situations in which Helga constantly finds herself.

Hilde (hilded) | 353 comments Glad to see that both of you enjoyed the book. It's also on my TBR list for February, and I am saving it for my (too) long flight on Friday! Will be in need of a good read then 😊

message 4: by Leni (new)

Leni Iversen (leniverse) | 472 comments 4 stars

Quicksand has a bi-racial protagonist struggling to find her place and her identity. Just like in Passing there is "white" and then there is "negro", no matter what shade or background you are. But where Passing focused on relationships between individuals and the question of the desirability and ability of passing for white, Quicksand, even though it has only one main character, takes a step back and looks at society. Or I should say societies. Not only are Denmark and the USA contrasted, but we are shown the differences between North and South, and it is clear that Harlem is a society unto itself completely cut off from the rest of New York.

The protagonist has grown up in a white family, and has trouble identifying with black people. At the same time she has been constantly aware of not being white. She scorns black people for wanting to be like "their white overlords", and yet she does not know how to embrace being black. She is an impulsive and not always likeable character, but her alienation and increasing desperation is a terrible thing.

Larsen excels at the surprise ending of short fiction, and both Passing and Quicksand have endings that almost demand consideration and discussion.

Hilde (hilded) | 353 comments Read: February 2018 (for my TBR challenge)
Rating: 4 stars

After reading Passing in January, I was lucky enough to get Quicksand as my choice for the TBR challenge in February. I very much enjoyed both of these books.

To a great extent, the motive and also a lot of the story, is autobiographical. Nella Larsen herself had a Danish mother and an absent father of African heritage (I think), just as the protagonist (Helga Crane) in the book. We meet Helga as a young teacher in the Southern parts of US. In a highly segregated society where one is either black or white, Helga finds herself struggling to fit in, and eventually moves to Chicago and then Harlem in New York. Following her Danish heritage, she eventually decides to move to Copenhagen, when her struggles about fitting in follow her. Quite interesting to read about being a colored immigrant in Copenhagen in the 1920’s and how different she was treated here compared to the States. I guess this was not so common back then, so I found it very interesting to get Larsen’s perspective from that time.

Helga herself is a an attractive and intelligent woman, but no matter where she ends up, she struggles with her identity and feels like she never fits in no matter what she does. But I got the impression from time to time that Helga was actively looking for motives to not fit in, so she wasn’t the most likeable character.

The book is well written. And what an ending, it definitely surprised me; just as the ending in Passing also did. Unfortunately, the struggle that Helga describes is still relevant today.

Diane  | 2051 comments Rating: 4 stars

This is my second time to read this powerful book. My review has not changed from what I wrote in post #1. This is a book I will continue to return to.

Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 894 comments 4 stars

Earlier this year I read Larsen's book Passing which has really stuck with me. I mention it often as it was so unique and thought-provoking. That experience made me quite excited to read this one. Larsen's prose is quite beautiful making these books have so much ease and fluidity. The two books felt quite different one from the other though. Passing was for me a clearer exploration of what it meant to be biracial in America. It was more difficult for me to place myself in the shoes of her characters as I am a white woman living decades later. I have never experienced life as a minority woman, let alone as a mixed race person who is torn between two cultures. This book felt more accessible to me because it was more about life as a woman looking for a life of happiness. It was about the human condition. We all hope for love, respect, and contentment. We seek acceptance from others. This book took the protagonist Helga on a journey from the American South to Chicago, New York, Copenhagen and back again. She kept moving in a search for a life she could love, and it seemed like the more she chased it the more she was removed from it. I have found that often we are too anxious to make changes when we think we are unhappy. Sometimes we need to settle in and look at the lives we have. This book really made me think.

After I finished the book I did what I often do and came to Goodreads to read the reviews of others. One reviewer mentioned a quote by Elisabeth Hudson. I liked the quote so I googled her and found a wonderful paper she had written. I highly recommend you take a look at it because it helped me to see some of the themes I hadn't recognized in the book.

Melissa Another great short story from Larsen, she manages to capture in these tales the disillusionment and feeling of never truly belonging to those stuck between two worlds. The soul crushing pressure and depression of not belonging because you’re not black enough to be black and not white enough be white, forever being in-between two extremes, and never feeling truly at home in either.

4 Stars

Valerie Brown | 635 comments I just finished this short novel.

I liked Larsen's style of writing here - it seemed formal. Because of that presentation we, as the reader, view Helga's life dispassionately. This seems to be a deliberate choice because it enhances the fact that Helga doesn't 'let anyone in' or let herself feel deeply about anyone (or anything). As a reader it is difficult to 'like' Helga.

That said, Helga's situation is sad and difficult. I think it is equally due to the time she is living in and the fact that she is bi-racial. There don't seem to be any interesting opportunities for an educated woman who identifies as black. The options only seem to be get married or be an 'exotic' addition to upper class society (in Denmark).

Unfortunately, she makes a very bad life decision. I was a little surprised that that turn of events occurred, but Larsen makes some pointed remarks in the last chapter. This turn of events may have been her way to include more direct social criticism. 4*

message 10: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Robitaille | 976 comments *** 1/2

In a similar vein as Passing, this novel delves into the prejudices experienced by women of mixed heritage around the 1920s in the USA. This time, we follow the slow sinking into quicksand of Helga Crane, born out of a fleeting relationship between a black American and a Danish woman. Not able to fit in as a teacher in a Black college, she tries her hand in New York, where she becomes ostracized for not being black enough. She then decides to join her aunt's entourage in Denmark where, whilst mostly well treated, she feels she is shown around as a curiosity. She retreats back to the States where she makes the dubious choice of following a black preacher in hope of redeeming the rest of her life. Alas...

I felt this novel was probably a bit more credible than Passing, most likely because it felt a bit more autobiographical. The writing style also felt a little bit more natural. Once again, it was a very topical read considering the race issues brewing (again) in the USA.

message 11: by Gail (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gail (gailifer) | 1495 comments Others have sketched out the plot and writing style of this book.
I had read Passing first and its rational and emotional impact was harder hitting for me than this story in which our protagonist is forever lost in racial condemnation of her own people and by extension, of herself. Identifying as Negro although her mother was white, Helga is also forever lost because she can not fully belong in any of the cultural environments available to her. Helga does have a moment of realization that her desire for nice things will not bring her a full life, but her fall at the end into Quicksand, was not expected and reflected the total oppression of so many women of that era because of lack of birth control.
Even though I preferred Passing, I still found this book to be moving and I gave it 3.5 stars.

message 12: by Book (new) - rated it 3 stars

Book Wormy | 2064 comments Mod
3 stars

This is a powerful story but to me it is overshadowed by the brilliance that is Passing, that said this is an earlier work and you can see how Larsen has developed as a writer.

As a mixed raced child Helga doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere she doesn’t feel black or white enough to belong decisively to either camp. Being in Harlem, New York doesn’t suit her but when she is away in Denmark living with her white relatives she misses her black heritage. In Denmark she is treated as an exotic beauty and a prize to be won while in the US she remains essentially an outcast from the best of society. The ending for me is tragic.

This is an important work, it is a short read (under 200 pages) but it really packs a punch.

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