THE PLOT: Passing by Nella Larsen is a short novel about two light-skinned women in 1920’s New York. Irene has an enviable life. She and her husband, a prominent physician in the Black community, share a comfortable Harlem town house with their sons. But her hold on this world begins to slip when she encounters Clare, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare—light-skinned, beautiful, and charming—tells Irene how she left behind the black neighbourhood of her adolescence and began passing for white. Clare hides her true identity from her racist husband, but her desperation to reconnect with Irene spells disaster for them both.
RATING: This classic novel gets four and a half stars. Published in 1929, it’s ridiculously contemporary as it comments on the meaning of race. Each light-skinned protagonist (we’d probably think of them as mixed race) chooses a radically different path in life. One becomes a privileged member of the Black community, espousing racial pride. The other passes for white, attaining a different sort of wealth and social status yet pining for the comfort of her ‘own people’. But neither figure is wholly innocent and the consequences of their choices leave you wondering whether race really is so black and white.
GOOD BITS: The best thing about this book is the subtext. Underneath all of the dialogue there is an electric current of what’s not being said. Although there’s a third person narrator, I think the focus on Irene was a good device to tell the story through. Seemingly, Clare is the more enigmatic, charming character, but by centring Irene we see the effects of Clare’s presence on the world around her. Irene’s façade of the perfect wife and mother slowly slips as Clare is injected into her life. Her words and actions may be perfectly polite, but the narrator’s access to her thoughts allows the reader to feel a tumultuous undercurrent in her interactions.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: Because the book is so small, it’s rather perfectly formed. Everything that needs to happen, happens. There aren’t a lot of wasted words on meaningless side quests. However, I would’ve liked a scene that showed the characters’ relationships to poor, black people. Both Irene and Clare are extremely privileged in different ways so it would be interesting to see them reacting to a poor, dark-skinned family, which would have been outside of both of their comfort zones.
OVERALL: This book is small yet it packs a whopping punch. The narration reminded me of ‘The Pursuit of Love’ by Nancy Mitford, with two characters that are drawn to each other and love each other, yet they respectively represent order and chaos (the beautiful tension of respectability versus impulsivity). I’d also recommend it to lovers of Tar Baby by Toni Morrison (Clare has something of the Jadine about her) and the Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.