Quicksand – Review

“But just what did she want? Barring a desire for material security, gracious ways of living, a profusion of lovely clothes, and a goodly share of envious admiration, Helga Crane didn’t know, couldn’t tell. But there was, she knew, something else. Happiness, she supposed. Whatever that might be. What, exactly, she wondered, was happiness. Very positively she wanted it. Yet her conception of it had no tangibility. She couldn’t define it, isolate it, and contemplate it as she could some other abstract things. Hatred, for instance. Or kindness.”

Quicksand by Nella Larsen
Passing and Quicksand by Nella Larsen

When people ask the question about author’s you’d like to have a conversation with, I’m going to say Nella Larsen. Because with both of her books, I’ve been pulled into what I’m calling the #LarsenLure or maybe, #QuicksandQuagmire. Did the quote not just pull you along, lure you into thinking when you just sit there and ponder it? But imagine pages full of moments like this, sparse but gradually pulling you into the story awaiting the climax and then just like that, you didn’t see that coming.

Helga Crane is of mixed race ancestry which during the time the book was written, that meant she was colored, Negro, black.  Helga is wrought with frustration over her life, she’s a teacher at a school in the south called Naxos, resolving to leave because she doesn’t feel she’s accomplishing anything.

As the story progresses, it becomes evident that happiness is fleeting for Helga. She seems frustrated by her lack of belonging and seeks to remedy that by leaving for Copenhagen. But over time, consistent in her feelings of unhappiness, Helga returns to New York for her friend, Anne’s, wedding. Upon her return, she finds that she’s missed her people, something she didn’t realize until now.

“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?”

There are many layers and tropes to examine outside of the obvious for Helga and her mixed raced identity. Larsen frames for the reader, the internal essence of a woman, her desires and ambitions, her mental, emotional and physiological states. Helga’s inner dissatisfaction also touches on her feelings of being irresponsible to marry and have black children who would be mistreated because of the color of their skin. No doubt she experienced and remembers her own childhood with frustration and still fractured feelings.

“In forgetting all but love she had forgotten, or perhaps never known, that some things the world never forgives. But as Helga knew, she had remembered, or had learned in suffering and longing all the rest of her life.”

Helga’s migration from Naxos, Chicago, Harlem, Denmark and finally Alabama, touches on the migration of African American people in a way we don’t always give attention to when looking at the past. In some books, we often see a person dealing with the ramifications of a person remaining stationary in a place confronting mistreatment and inequality. But, just like Larsen, we can further our education, and improve ourselves, by reading books that give attention to people in places and their life their in comparison to where they were before. I’m currently reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson so there is the intersection of thoughts and activities in my reading.

The introduction to this editon of Quicksand says, “Larsen’s Quicksand is a woman’s version of a similar response (to Toomer’s Cane and Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man) Mapping the body within the spaces though which it moves, Larsen confronts cultural phenomena such as the oppression of women under the institutions of patriarchy…”

Reading women’s literature allows us to examine things in a different context, with a rich perspective. As much as I enjoy reading as much as possible, I also enjoy taking some time to think more about what else lies within the framework of good literature. I think Larsen does us a favor in her sparse, but effective prose. Her second novel Passing feels more seasoned, but Quicksand should not be overlooked or dismissed.

Published by booksbythecup

Lover of good books and tea

10 thoughts on “Quicksand – Review

  1. I love this novella and used to teach it to college freshmen. They would have to choose a scene and rewrite it from another character’s point of view, considering all the context clues about what’s going on. The point was to get student to think more about the male characters and how they view what Helga is. For instance, the minister at the end would see her as a devoted partner, a vessel to carry children, a help-mate. In Copenhagen, she is an exotic peacock, the topic of conversation for reasons that still focus on her race and not her as a person. Throughout the novella, each man Helga encounters seems to represent a different attitude about black women at the time, and poor Helga has to face all of them down in her own search for happiness and identity.

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  2. I just finished Quicksand and I loved it. That quote you share is exactly like so many of the passages I highlighted, that hook the reader in, I love how unreserved the character of Helga is, her lack of family and lineage and roots are destabilising for her in one sense and contribute to her inability to find happiness, but they also set her free on the other hand from feeling like she needs to succumb to the expectations of others. She does what she likes, even if each time she moves fails to fill that void within her.

    I loved how shocked her friend was when she didn’t get up for work and decided to abandon her job midway through the term and let the principal know her truth, how she could no longer bear the hypocrisy – and yet as he set his case before her, her empathy showed, she would have changed her mind had he not gone on to start talking about her breeding. Oh, the shock of that ending, I was stunned.

    I have a sense that Passing seems to be more talked about or known, but I’m glad I started with Quicksand and look forward to reading Passing next. What an excellent writer she was and how tragic that false accusations stunted her creativity and gift to all of our detriment.

    I haven’t read the new Brit Bennett book, The Vanishing Half, but I hope it too might inspire people to pick up Nella Larsen’s books, which clearly are classics of the Harlem Renaissance.

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    1. Larsen was an outstanding writer in my opinion and this book really left me thinking about how much what’s expected can almost feel suffocating. A woman who had an independent attidude (not rushing to marry and have kids) as she ponders the ways and ideals of the world she’s lived in. From her own childhood and now as an adult, she rebuffed the concept of bringing children into a world that she feels would treat her child the same way she was treated.

      I do wish there was more from Larsen because I could read her books and never tire of what I discover in them. Passing was my first by her a few years ago and I plan to read it again.

      I read The Vanishing Half and it wasn’t bad but it didn’t have the same impact or affect as Larsens text.

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      1. You can feel that pulsing energy in Larsen’s writing from the opening pages, that exciting feeling of encountering an author in command of her subject and characters. I think the way she tried to shed layers of her past, of that family she was part of and yet not, the school she was sent to, the fulfillment and then rejection of expectations as she awakened from being moulded was exceptionally well portrayed, and self-exile as a place to try and discover her own self. She couldn’t embrace motherhood when she still hadn’t accepted herself or overcome the wounds of being that child.

        I find it similar to being adopted, being raised in a kind of false identity and heritage with expectations of who one is supposed to be and do, that unravelling the mystery of identity when it fills in the gaps, doesn’t fill the void, that thing we have to embrace on our own, finding our own authentic self, voice and family.

        I did wonder if The Vanishing Half might have been hyped. I’m going to start a Passing today.

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