My rating: 4 stars
Racism, identity and marriage play a crucial role in Passing by Nella Larsen. Through the story of two women of African-American origin in the 1920s, it portrays the rife racism present in society and delves into how it is possible to live a lie for a long time, while feeling the need to escape it.
It’s a warm August and Irene Redfield is back in her hometown, Chicago, for a visit. To refresh herself, she decides to drink tea at the roof of the Drayton Hotel. She soon starts to feel uncomfortable, though, as a woman at a table near her can’t stop looking in her direction. The woman, Clare Kendry, ends up asking her if she doesn’t remember her. They used to be friends when they were younger but haven’t seen each other for twelve years, because Clare went to live with her aunts after the death of her father. She is now married and has been passing as white.
Clare manages to convince Irene to go to her place one afternoon. There she realises that Clare’s husband is not aware of her African-American origin, believing that he has married a white woman. In fact, he hates black people.
Although the book is narrated in the third person, it focuses on Irene’s point of view. Her personality is, for that reason, the clearest. There’s a praiseworthy exploration of her feelings, not only her annoyance about Clare’s behaviour and capacity to make her do things that she is not willing to at first, but also her concerns about her marriage. She likes the stability of her life and wants to feel in control, despite constantly having doubts about her husband’s wishes. Irene is also adamant that her children shouldn’t know about the extent of racism in society, though it is pervasive and it has already started affecting them.
It’s not only Irene’s mindset that is richly portrayed. The visual descriptions of the weather are also commendable, particularly because they occasionally seem to be correlated with what is to happen plot-wise.
“On Tuesday morning a dome of grey sky rose over the parched city, but the stifling air was not relieved by the silvery mist that seemed to hold a promise of rain, which did not fall.”
Throughout Passing, there’s a constant feeling of tension and curiosity about Clare’s actions – how can her apparent need to spend time with other African-Americans be squared with her marriage? The ending took me certainly by surprise. Some chance encounters feel, however, too convenient.