Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, written and set during the Harlem renaissance, is a complex novel, which as its name suggests, navigates themes of race and identity which form a central thread in the book but also much more, for themes of marriage and relationships are also key, besides others like motherhood, class and society.
Divided into three parts, the story is told in third person through the perspective of Irene Refield, an African–American woman who lives in Harlem with her husband Brian, a doctor, and two sons. On a visit to Chicago where her parents live, Irene is out shopping one extremely hot day when she feels faint and is ‘rescued’ by a passing taxi driver. She asks to be taken to the Drayton hotel for tea; being light skinned, Irene can ‘pass’ as white and is seen as such by most, and takes advantage of this. Here she comes across a beautiful and attractive woman who turns out to be her childhood friend Clare Kendry. Also light skinned, Clare who had a difficult childhood, is now married to a white man, one who doesn’t know her true identity; in fact John Bellew claims to hate black people and thinks his wife, whom he ‘jokingly’ calls ‘Nig’ does so too. Having severed all ties to her past, Clare’s been leading a life that’s given her all she dreamt of but now something makes her want to reconnect with her past, with the community that she’s left behind. Clare as Irene sees her is
Catlike. Certainly the word which best described Clare Kendry, if any single word could describe her. Sometimes she was hard and apparently without feeling at all; some times she was affectionate and rashly impulsive. And there was about her am amazingly soft malice, hidden well until provoked. Then she was capable of scratching, and very effectively, too.
Clare, Irene learns has travelled to Chicago with her husband specifically to run into someone from her past, to find out what has become of old friends and connections, and doesn’t seem to care how dangerous this may be for her. She is
Stepping always on the edge of danger. Always aware but not drawing back or turning aside. Certainly not because of any alarms or feeling of outrage on the part of others.
Very beautiful and with a way of making others fall in with her wishes, Clare soon works her way into Irene’s life and society, with every occasion raising her confidence, despite the threat of her secret being found out always hanging over her.
Irene herself is both intrigued by Clare and at the same time also wants constantly to break away and have nothing to do with her. Alongside, she is coping with the issues her own life and family throw up, from the upbringing of her children to the restlessness of her husband.
Passing was an engaging and multifaceted novel which while exploring the themes I had expected from its title, also proceeded in an unexpected direction adding to its substance and surprise. Our story is primarily explored through the two main characters, Irene and Clare. We learn of Clare’s childhood, her marriage, her daughter, and her desire to once again become part of her community in any way she can, but essentially it is through Irene’s eyes and descriptions that we see her. We see her certainly as Irene puts it, ‘always on the edge of danger’, but one does also wonder about the ‘real’ her.
Alongside, Irene presents an equally complex picture as while on the surface she is a happily married woman, with two children, living a fairly affluent life (‘that’s what everybody wants, just a little more money’) in Harlem, and working in the interests of her people, she has several problems and insecurities of her own. It soon emerges that Brian, despite loving his wife and family has had a long-standing desire to live and work in Brazil, something that Irene has been successfully checking; also it seems that they aren’t quite on the same page with the upbringing of their two boys. These lead to constant worries and anxiety on Irene’s part which takes her thoughts in several directions. Whether her fears are only in her mind or whether there is any truth to them, one can only guess.
Both Irene and Clare live ostensibly stable, happy lives, one ‘passing’ when the need arises but otherwise happy and comfortable with her identity, the other in a more permanent state of ‘passing’, living a ‘dream’ life, yet one where any hint of her secret can ruin all she has created for herself. Yet below the surface both are perhaps equally restless and uneasy in their own ways, and it is this that defines the plot as much as does the question of race and identity.
This is a book which though told seemingly straightforwardly leaves much to the reader’s interpretation, which for me made it a compelling read. And that ending—not only did I not see it coming (despite the tension building up in a way), but it had me reading it over again to see how it should be understood, as well as reassess what I’d been thinking of the story and characters once again.
At 141 pages, this qualifies for Novellas in November and is my first entry for that challenge.