Book Review: Passing by Nella Larsen

Title: Passing

Author: Nella Larsen

Genre: Classic Literary Fiction/Novella

Number of Pages: 176

Rating: B

Recommended?: Yes


Irene, the protagonist of Passing, is a Black woman living in Harlem in the 1920’s with her husband and two sons. She has a remote, rather cold personality and is obviously less than thrilled when she is reunited with her childhood friend Clare and Clare proceeds to push her way back into Irene’s life.

Both Irene and Clare are so light skinned they can pass as white, and while Irene’s husband Brian is also Black Clare’s husband John is a deeply racist white man who thinks she’s also white. Irene is horrified to learn of Clare’s deception and becomes extremely uncomfortable when she meets John and he immediately devolves into a prejudiced rant.

Irene becomes increasingly resentful of Clare and suspicious of her intentions, while Clare obliviously continues to insert herself into Irene’s life. This book was interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything with this subject matter before and it seems like it was very personal for the author, as a light skinned Black woman.

She wrote another book (Quicksand) with similar themes and Passing was recently adapted into a movie directed by Rebecca Hall. I haven’t seen the movie or read Nella Larsen’s other work yet, but this book is vividly written, evoking strong imagery throughout its short duration. The book was about 90 pages on my Kindle, so it was really short, but I thought it handled its subject matter superbly in such a brief amount of time.

I didn’t find either of the main characters likable and I’m not sure I ever really understood them. They were an enigma to me, especially Clare. Even though it’s written in third-person, I felt like it had a element of the unreliable narrator about it, especially how Irene perceives Clare. There was such a sense of contempt even though they were allegedly ‘friends’ at some point in their lives. The ending is unexpected and dark and really drives home how awful Irene is. Passing succeeds both as social commentary on racism and a story of a truly toxic friendship.

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