“Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess,”

Dear Nella,

I’m impressed by how autobiographical your novel Quicksand is. The protagonist, Helga Crane, much like yourself, is the daughter of a Scandinavian mother and a black father who abandons the family when Helga is only a child.  When the story opens, Helga is a 22 year old woman, dissatisfied with her life. She is currently in Naxos, teaching at a black boarding school with whose ideology and conventions she strongly disagrees.

nella larsen
Review

Since the restless Helga seems unable to articulate what she wants, we follow her as she moves to Chicago, to Harlem during its famous Renaissance, then to Denmark, back to New York, and finally to Alabama, continuously seeking both identity and social acceptance in the face of imposing definitions of race, gender and sexuality.

 

Helga’s journey  has the contours of an odyssey made in circles, in a Dantesque hell. As a novel about a person’s search for identity within diverse societies marked, one way or another, by oppressive institutions, Quicksand explores the protagonist’s dissatisfaction with the stereotypes and roles imposed on her. Helga feels trapped in each one of the identities she tries on: as a daughter,she feels rejected and alienated; as a teacher, she rebels against the school’s white-imposed structures; as niece of a white uncle, she is also rejected; as a mixed-race person in Harlem in the 1920’s, she is regarded with suspicion; as a black woman in Danmark, she is treated as an exotic and wild animal; as a lover, she is discarded; as a wife and mother, she feels limited, conscript to an imposed role.

Helga’s search illustrates the many troubles of establishing one’s identity within racist and patriarchal structures: the racial line between and among black and white groups; the lack of identity and sense of belonging caused by abandonment and instability during childhood; the duties imposed on motherhood as a difficult identity to escape from. Helga feels like an outsider wherever she goes; she feels constrained both in her plight to define her racial identity, as well as in her struggle to obtain sexual autonomy. I each of the places she has lived on, Helga is forced to confront stereotypes that confine her. Each place hinders Helga’s search for her identity by either repressing or exploiting it.

Your writing style, so straightforward and bold as your daring heroine herself, was the novel’s highlight for me. Though the novel’s ending may seem somewhat conservative in its sacrificial treatment of the heroine, your critique is sharp: you explore limiting modes of defining race and social role, and of representing female sexuality. I’m therefore looking forward to reading your second novel, dear Nella.

Yours truly,

J.

Henri Matisse. Liseuse au guéridon (1921).


“Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent. She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it. As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable. She went through moments of overwhelming anguish. She felt shut in, trapped.”
― Nella Larsen, Quicksand

“Faith was really quite easy. One had only to yield. To ask no questions. The more weary, the more weak, she became, the easier it was. Her religion was to her a kind of protective coloring, shielding her from the cruel light of an unbearable reality.”
― Nella Larsen, Quicksand

About the book

  • Penguin Classics, 2002, 146 p.
  • First published in 1928
  • Goodreads
  • My rating: 4,5 stars
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