Book Review: Passing by Nella Larsen


Format: Paperback

Pages: 122 pages

Published: 1929

Publisher: Modern Library

Genre: Fiction, Classics


Irene Redfield, the novel’s protagonist, is a woman with an enviable life. She and her husband, Brian, a prominent physician, share a comfortable Harlem town house with their sons. Her work arranging charity balls that gather Harlem’s elite creates a sense of purpose and respectability for Irene. But her hold on this world begins to slip the day she encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare—light-skinned, beautiful, and charming—tells Irene how, after her father’s death, she left behind the black neighborhood of her adolescence and began passing for white, hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband. As Clare begins inserting herself into Irene’s life, Irene is thrown into a panic, terrified of the consequences of Clare’s dangerous behavior. And when Clare witnesses the vibrancy and energy of the community she left behind, her burning desire to come back threatens to shatter her careful deception. 

Nella Larsen has a gift for the narrative word. Her use of lyrical language makes this story such a fascinating read. Passing reads more like a poem, rather than a novel. But to me, however, it is a good thing. I found myself more engrossed in the narrative and found it more difficult to tear myself away. I was enthralled and captivated by the characters, most particularly by the two childhood friends, Clare and Irene.

Clare and Irene’s relationship can be discussed and dissected for long periods of time. Unfortunately, Larsen doesn’t spend much time as readers would like on their dynamic relationship. However, I believe she did that on purpose. She wanted the readers to come up with their own interpretations. For example, is Irene’s anxiety and animosity towards Clare the result of something more? Homo-eroticism between Irene and Clare should have been explored more. Who knows if that was Larsen’s intent, but this theme made the work become more alive analytically. Irene is both infatuated and exasperated by Clare. Most likely the reason why they are  so drawn to one another.

The word “passing” can be used in many different ways, other than race. Irene’s husband was “passing”. He was unhappy with his life, but for his wife and children, he kept up appearances, he “passed” on through. The fact that just one word could have so many connotations, other than race, just shows how skillful of a writer Larsen was. The ending was ambiguous, which I loved. You know a novel ended on a good note when the conclusion leads to open-ended questions.

This novel gives an expanded picture of people’s conflicting emotions of race. The fear of losing one’s life, the fear of losing one’s self…Larsen managed to perfectly capture 1920s race culture. This intricate novel portrayal of race, gender, and sexuality will have you applauding this great work and striving more of Larsen’s words.

Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Get It At: Amazon |Barnes & Noble|Book Depository | Your local library

Published by karma2015

I was born and raised in New York. I still live in New York but kind of sick of the city and one day I wish to move to the UK.I have a Masters degree in Library Science and I currently work in a special collections library. I loved books ever since I was a little girl. Through the hard times in my life, my love for books has always gotten me through. Just entering another world different from my own intrigues me. As long as I am entering in another universe, I like to create my own as well. I love to write and hopefully I will be able to complete a novel.

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