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Quicksand by Nella Larsen (thoughts)

November 16, 2011

Earlier this year I read and loved Nella Larsen’s Passing. So when I saw that Quicksand was available as an ebook from my library, I couldn’t resist! I’m glad that I didn’t: I ended up loving this one too, for different reasons. It opens with Helga Crane, daughter of a Danish woman and African American man, as she teaches at a prestigous ‘Negro’ school in the south. She’s restless in her position, and eventually decides to strike off and make her own way in the world. The rest of the story follows her as she tries to find her place in a world divided on colour lines.

Helga reminds me a bit of Austen’s Emma, who she famously described as ‘a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’ She’s quite self-involved, and has a bad habit of running away without much concern for how others in her life might feel about that. I can imagine how some readers might easily end up disliking Helga, but I always cared for her. I must admit, my own first impulse whenever a situation becomes difficult is to run away, or at the very least to shut down. And while I’d like to think I’m more compassionate and less selfish than Helga, I think this allowed me to empathise with her. Also, I identified with how she spends her twenties trying to figure out who she is, both to herself and in the eyes of society, a society that can’t quite place her. Of course, I haven’t experienced the racial discrimination that marks Helga’s life, but being too ill to work (especially while looking perfectly healthy) presents a fair share of awkward conversations. I regularly feel dread when I meet new people, because the second question after ‘What’s your name?’ is ‘What do you do?,’ and I worry about being judged as worthless without a job.

I’ve strayed quite far from the book, haven’t I?! Anyway, my point is I imagine one’s enjoyment of Quicksand in large part depends on one’s perception of the heroine. But even if you can’t like Helga, I think Larsen’s wonderful writing and perceptive descriptions of social dynamics makes it well worth a read. Not a happy book, perhaps, but a powerful and touching one that cements Larsen’s place as one of my favourite early twentieth century authors. I’m just sad that she didn’t write more extensively, and I imagine anyone who loves Edith Wharton owes it to themselves to try Larsen too!

Suggestion Companion Reads

  • Harlem is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (I don’t think this was a perfect book, but I *loved* the first half, in which Rhodes-Pitts often references Harlem literary authors and characters, including Helga.)
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Lily Bart is also on a quest to change her life circumstances: she definitely shares some qualities with Helga!)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (I think it’s fascinating to contrast Hurston and Larsen, since they were both part of the Harlem Renaissance milieu. And Hurston’s most famous novel has a similar structure to Passing: the heroine moves a few times and travels from place to place, looking for ‘home.’)
14 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2011 6:30 am

    You got my interest with that last line. I might have to give this a whirl!

  2. November 16, 2011 9:35 am

    Sadly, I have not read Larson’s work, but Passing has been on my radar since grad school. This one sounds pretty amazing, too!

  3. November 16, 2011 10:26 am

    Interesting. I thought Passing was very well-crafted and complex but found Quicksand to be much less so – a lot clunkier in terms of character and plot development. Didn’t find Helga particularly unsympathetic, but didn’t find her to be a very real-seeming character, either. I think one of the problems for me was that Larsen covers such an extended timeline in such a short work, so IMO the narrative ends up seeming sketchy and hurried. But it’s interesting how perceptions differ! I’m glad you enjoyed this one more than I did. :-) And we certainly agree re: wishing Larsen had written more!

    • November 16, 2011 10:33 am

      I agree re: the plotting of the two, and Passing is definitely more subtle. Quicksand feels like a debut, semi-autobiographical novel of a young author…I can see its technical flaws, but it won me over anyway, with fervour perhaps. I think I have a soft spot for those kinds of books! And Helga felt real to me, which is probably why I ended up esteeming it more. I meant to write I loved it more at the beginning: by the end I loved them equally. I’ll go back and edit it. :)

  4. November 16, 2011 11:01 am

    This sounds like an interesting book. I have Passing to read still and then may come to this depending on my thoughts on Passing!

  5. November 16, 2011 12:07 pm

    I cannot say that I love Edith Wharton (when I read The House of Mirth a few years back, I found the prose rather hard-going), but you have still convinced me that I should try Larsen! I do intend to revisit Wharton some day, so in the interim, I think this might be a nice way to get my toes wet… I’ve never felt that having a likeable heroine is at all necessary to enjoy a book, since I often find the characters who trouble me are the ones I find most interesting!

    • November 22, 2011 4:30 pm

      Larsen’s prose is more straightforward: I was thinking of Wharton’s plots and characters more than writing style! :)

  6. November 16, 2011 3:33 pm

    Oh I hear you about looking normal but feeling dreadful – it’s a real cross to bear, isn’t it? Much sympathy there. I got excited about Nella Larssen when you reviewed Passing, and I have a copy now that includes both that novel and this one. Can’t wait to get to them!

    • November 22, 2011 4:31 pm

      It is just SO frustrating. I’ve often told my mom I wish I turned purple or something when I was ill, that way everyone would know just by looking at me. I’d love to see your thoughts on Larsen: I’m sure they’ll be far more sophisticated!

  7. November 16, 2011 4:46 pm

    I loved Passing so much I wrote my dissertation about it. Larsen was a fascinating woman. As an aside, the woman on the cover of the edition you have looks like Jessie Fauset — a contemporary of Larsen’s. You may like her work too.

    • November 22, 2011 4:31 pm

      I hadn’t heard of Fauset: thanks for the rec!

  8. November 17, 2011 11:16 am

    I really enjoyed the issues and surprising depth behind them in PAssing. I’ll have to find this one too! awesome you found the ebook of it.

  9. Kathleen permalink
    November 19, 2011 7:08 pm

    It sounds like you felt a connection to the main character and this always makes for a more powerful read.

  10. November 23, 2011 8:36 am

    Oh, the tragedy of Nella Larsen’s short-lived literary life. I mourn the lost works she never got to write because she exiled herself off from writing. Larsen writes difficult heroines, conflicted females and I love that about her work. We need more of that! Thanks for the review.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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