Written By: Nella Larsen

192 pages

Literature/ African-American/ Classics

Publisher: Penguin Classics

This Edition Published: 2002

First Published: 1928

Quicksand, by Nella Larsen, is just what it sounds like: an experience of ever-sinking, of flailing and failing, of struggling to stay above the muck but endlessly falling back into it. The protagonist, Helga Crane, is smart, thoughtful, and aware, and that is precisely her problem. She is mixed-race, the product of a Danish mother and a black father, and she sees too clearly the problem of how people of her skin tone are treated in America. The novel deals with her constant struggle to find a place where she can belong—not only as a black woman or as a white woman, but as her unique self, the sum of those parts. Readers are transported from Harlem to Denmark and back again, hoping against hope that Helga will eventually find a compromise that she can live with.

One thing I like about Nella Larsen is that her books are never just about race, or being mixed-race, or even about being a woman, but rather are about characters who seem like real people and not symbols. Helga Crane is idiosyncratic: she is smart, but impulsive, personable but sometimes alienating, and she doesn’t always know (or do) what’s best for her. She can be frustrating and even unlikable, but she remains relatable in some way. Larsen succeeds at creating antiheroes, women who are not conventionally sympathetic, but whose interior life nonetheless makes us feel for them.

While I think Passing may be Larsen’s masterpiece, I still enjoyed Quicksand for its keen insights and devastating conclusions. Larsen draws largely on her own life, and this added dimension makes the novel all the more fascinating. It is a meaningful look at issues of identity, and it shows both how far we have come and how far we still have to go in creating a more inclusive society.

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