Passing by Nella Larsen – Book review

I first heard of Passing when I read The Vanishing Half last year. The author of that book, Brit Bennett mentions Passing in her notes as both it and The Vanishing Half cover the same theme: light-skinned Black women who can pass as white.

Opening sentence: It was the last letter in Irene Redfield’s little pile of morning mail.

Irene and Clare

Written in 1929 and set across Chicago and New York, this is the story of childhood friends, Irene and Clare. As adults, they bump into each other over afternoon tea, having lost touch as teenagers.

Clare is now ‘passing’ as a white woman, married to a rich, white and, ironically, racist man. Irene lives as a Black woman, although she is very light skinned:

They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never, when she was alone, has they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.

Exploration of identity

Irene is not overjoyed at the idea of reigniting her friendship with Clare, especially as she now lives as white. But Clare is keen to reach out to her old friend and get back a part of her life she feels she has lost.

But you’ve never answered my question. Tell me, honestly, haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’?’

Many interesting ideas of identity come through over these less than 100 pages. As well as white privilege, it looks at how race runs deeper than skin colour and how if you belong to more than one race, shouldn’t it be down to the individual, perhaps, to decide which race they want to be? Is that something that would ever be accepted in wider society?

It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think it would be so simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for coloured.

Earlier this year I read Manifesto, a memoir by author Bernardine Evaristo. She is mixed-race and made this interesting point that sprung to mind while I was reading Passing: ‘Yet, while I am equally black and white in terms of ancestry, when people look at me, they see my father through me, and not my mother. The fact that I cannot claim a white identity, should I so wish (not that I do), is intrinsically irrational, and serves only to demonstrate the point that the idea of race is absurd.’

Passing certainly gave me a lot to think about and, as well as that, it’s a taught, engaging, really well-written novella with interesting characters that thrums with tension and gives us a dramatic and unexpected ending. It’s also recently been made into a film and I’m very intrigued to see it.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

5 thoughts

  1. Thank you in particular for reviewing this one: Passing is a topic that has long been avoided in the Black community, and is still a difficult one for many of us to dealt with.
    Best regards,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read Passing several years ago, one of the first few reviews I posted on my blog. As Black woman, this book intrigued me in many ways, the decision to pass or not. The fact that we still are not that far removed from a society that will make assumptions about you because of your race. Larsen brilliantly crafts a story that is a lot of food for thought. I watched the movie recently she it made me want to reread the book.


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