Passing – by Nella Larsen – independent book review – Historical Fiction (United States, race)

Chosen as an audiobook to help pass a long car ride, PASSING by Nella Larsen (which warrants its own Wikipedia page) was first published in 1929 (part of the Harlem Renaissance), a book clearly ahead of its time in terms of talking openly about race in the United States. There are more editions of this book than you can imagine (including a variety of audio versions) so it has clearly demonstrated longevity and relevance over the decades.

Set in Harlem, Chicago and New York City it explores two childhood schoolmates, meeting as adult women– one of whom is passing for white (Claire) and one of whom (Irene) lives a prosperous life in the black community. Theirs is a relationship full of questions about identity, belonging, and fitting in.

The story felt to me like it took a turn away from a discussion of race and into the realm of women’s relationships, trust, and betrayal that didn’t feel pertinent to a book on “passing.” So I ended feeling like the novel didn’t quite know what it was trying to do.

Nella Larsen (1891-1964)
Photo from Wikipedia

It’s short (170 pages or 3:30 of audio). The writing feels quite dated. Flowery and meandering with long sentences that were sometimes hard to follow, especially without seeing the words on a page. But it’s an interesting period piece, a glimpse at the complex issues light-skinned black women face.

More about the author Nella Larsen.

3 Comments

      1. I’m trying to get it to be more popular. When it was published, it was contemporary fiction. But because it was published at least 40 years ago, I call it vintage. Makes sense, doesn’t it? All Jane Austen would be vintage contemporary fiction, for example.

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