Friday, February 26, 2010

Review: Quicksand by Nella Larsen

Frankly, the question came to this: what was the matter with her? Was there, without her knowing it, some peculiar lack in her? Absurd. But she began to have a feeling of discouragement and hopelessness. Why couldn't she be happy, content somewhere? Other people managed, somehow, to be. To put it plainly, didn't she know how? Was she incapable of it?

When I learned the classics circuit was going to be focusing on the Harlem Renaissance, I was really really excited. I don't know many of the writers of this time period at all and it seemed like a good chance to fill in the gaps of my education.

I picked Quicksand by Nella Larsen to read. Basically, I made this choice based on a few blurbs. As it turns out, Nella Larsen didn't write that much, I bought Quicksand (which is a novella) in a complete volume of her work that is less than 300 pages long. I can assure you after having read Quicksand I will be reading the rest of this book.

These people yapped loudly of race, of race consciousness, of race pride, and yet suppressed its most delightful manifestations, love of color, joy of rhythmic motion, naive, spontaneous laughter. Harmony, radiance, and simplicity, all the essentials of spiritual beauty in the race they had marked for destruction.

Quicksand is the story of Helga Crane, a half black half white educated woman. The story opens with Helga's discontent with her current place in life. She's a teacher in a school but she's weary of the conventions of the school, the expectations and conformity expected of everyone. She makes the decision to leave, but when her white uncle's wife won't take her in or offer her help, she's facing a life of the unknown. Helga struggles with her own painful past, a white mother who was abandoned by her father and later married another white man who hated her. When she tells the story to one of her new friends, her friend mentions she should not say she's white to the other black people they are going to meet in New York.

Throughout the story, Helga is trying to find herself, to find something that makes her happy and feel satisfied. I felt like Larsen crawled deeply into the skin of her character (and in fact the introduction suggests that Helga is really a thinly veiled version of Larsen), and I could feel the struggle and the restlessness within Helga so deeply. So much of her conflict is bound up in her feelings about race, but it's certainly not the only thing. Unfortunately, I identified strongly with Helga. I completely identified with that feeling you get at first of mad love and infatuation with a new stage of life only to have it turn into a kind of restlessness and despair after a year or so. Her lack of inner peace is palpable on every page and it's hard not to suspect that things won't end well...because this just isn't that kind of story. Quicksand is about reality.

One thing I really appreciated about the book is the exploration of race and how black people felt during this time period. I'm sorry to say it's not something I've spent a great deal of time thinking about. I understand the basic timeline of how things unfolded in our country in regards to race, but I don't feel like I have a deep understanding of the history. Something I've thought about this year is that I want to have a better, deeper understanding. So I enjoyed reading about where things were at this time period, and in particular the way Helga grappled with it herself. For instance, I wonder how many other women didn't want to have children so as not bring more people into the suffering that is their race? But even connecting strongly with her race didn't give Helga peace.

This isn't the kind of story where big sweeping things happen, but it's a page turner even so. Helga is so well drawn, her inner conflict, her loneliness, and despair such universal themes and so well portrayed that you will want to know how it turns out for her...and you might just cry a little, even if only in your heart, for how it all turns out.

Rating: 4.75/5
Things You Might Want to Know: There's some negative sentiments about Christianity in the book.
Source of Book: bought it
Publisher: Anchor books


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to comment! I appreciate hearing your thoughts.