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Born to a white mother and an absent black father, and despised for her dark skin, Helga Crane has long had to fend for herself. As a young woman, Helga teaches at an all-black school in the South, but even here she feels different. Moving to Harlem and eventually to Denmark, she attempts to carve out a comfortable life and place for herself, but ends up back where she started, choosing emotional freedom that quickly translates into a narrow existence.

Quicksand , Nella Larsen's powerful first novel, has intriguing autobiographical parallels and at the same time invokes the international dimension of African American culture of the 1920s. It also evocatively portrays the racial and gender restrictions that can mark a life.

192 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1928

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About the author

Nella Larsen

24 books516 followers
Nellallitea 'Nella' Larsen (first called Nellie Walker) was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote two novels and a few short stories. Though her literary output was scant, what she wrote earned her recognition by her contemporaries and by present-day critics.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 680 reviews
Profile Image for Lisa.
991 reviews3,320 followers
May 4, 2019
Oh, this short novel got under my skin!

You could argue that it is a story about the peculiar hardships of young African American women of the 1920s. And it would be both right and enough to make it a worthwhile reading experience. But there is so much more, touching on the universal and timeless questions of identity and meaning of life. Somehow, Helga Crane’s odyssey through life - from excitement to disappointment, to rebellion, break-out, and new excitement, leading to repeated disappointment - mirrors and reflects the difficulties all people face who do not completely fit into their environment.

Had Helga been my contemporary, I would have told her about the ever growing literature on the strange identity of third culture or cross culture kids, growing up between different communities, partly at home in both, but never fully belonging. Today it is quite common, but still disturbing, especially during adolescence, which I can confirm myself, having lived through a childhood of regular relocations, and now repeating the pattern with my own children. Once used to moving on, it is hard to stay in one place.

For Helga, born in an era less populated with global nomads, being the daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian straying father seemed to be an irreconcilable and unique identity. Resigning from a teaching position at a conservative school in the South of the US because she can’t face its hypocrisy, she starts her rebellion against a society that she can’t adopt.

“She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity. This she saw clearly now, and with cold anger at all the past futile effort. What a waste!”

Over Chicago, where she faces the blatant racism of her white relatives, she arrives in Harlem, and enjoys the thrill of the city for a while - until she realises that she has been there long enough to know that is not her world either. The politicised environment that thrives in rage against everything that represents white life excludes a part of her as well. She moves to Copenhagen, and enjoys her exotic reputation - for a while, until she starts missing the half of her identity that is rooted in African American culture.

Returning to America, she fails to acknowledge her own feelings for a man until it is too late, and out of frustration, she reacts with an extreme change of path, marrying a preacher from the South, and finding happiness in rural life and religion - for a while.

Waking up from the soothing effect of the illusion that she can hand over the responsibility for her own life to a higher supernatural power and a rewarding afterlife, she rejects her short era of faith with disgust.

In the end, she resigns herself to life being a disappointment, and to being stuck in a failure she can’t run away from anymore: she has children to take care of. The novel leaves no room for hope. Women around the world live like that, and feel Helga’s despair without any reason to believe that they will be able to break free and live a life embracing different layers of identity at the same time.

It is better now, in some parts of the world. For some women. But too many of us still struggle to combine longing for freedom with a wish to belong to a conventional community, or hope for an independent life with yearning for children. La condition humaine - a constant struggle and disappointment, but as Helga would have seen if she had allowed herself to look back: also an adventure with many roads open to those who dare to try them.

I think there is more to win than to lose from participating actively in different cultural communities, - as long as the right to move on is granted in case it does not work out!
Profile Image for Petra on hiatus, really unwell.
2,457 reviews34.4k followers
November 17, 2020
I first met Kaz when the four of us and our friends and relations went on board the 38' catamaran we were going to sail around the world. After we had dumped our stuff in the cabins and were sitting down for a drink, Kaz's mother really put her foot in it, so we could all see that they had a really foul relationship and therefore was one of us (how cheering!) Her mother said, "Karin doesn't want me to tell you this, but her nickname from when she was a little girl is Kaz." She went on to tell us of Kaz's allergies, that she eats apple pips but not the skin, and how she had been married just six months and left her husband at home. All the sorts of things you really don't need your mother saying.....

And almost the first thing that Kaz did, more literally than her mother, is to put her foot, feet, in it too.

We were just sailing around Cornwall, getting used to the boat, and had gone aground in a pretty estuary. We decided to go into the village opposite which meant quite a long walk along the bank, across the humpbacked bridge and then walking down to opposite where our boat rested lightly on the mud awaiting a high tide to carry us out. Kaz, lazy Kaz, decided to take a short cut and go straight across. So, putting on great big gum boots she stepped off the bank and squelched part of the way across the river bed.

We were standing on the shore laughing at her efforts to run across this morass of mud but sinking deeper with every step until it reached nearly to her knees, then above the boots, and then halfway up her thighs and it became obvious that she was in real danger. The mud was semi-liquid, like quicksand. And we weren't laughing anymore.

Barry got the long ladder, threw it out on the mud and taking a line with him crawled along it with Chris behind him. He threw Kaz the rope but she couldn't move at all by now and so scooting on his belly right to the end of the ladder, Chris holding onto his heels, he grabbed her wrists and straining every muscle, pulled and pulled until with the longest, loudest, farting sound Kaz was pulled out of her boots and dragged back through the mud to shore.

Naturally, after she cleaned up, we had to go to the pub to celebrate and it bonded the four of us into a tight group for the entire voyage that we were together. And Kaz was always called Kaz, no one ever called her Karin. Funnily enough, Barry's nickname was Baz and mine, in art college, had been Taz , so we were Kaz, Baz, Taz and Chris.

There is a pic of the boat here click first pic, the profile one, as I can't make the one you land on bigger.

I rewrote this review because in one of those Google random moments, her pic came up in a search. This was the original review in 2011. "I didn't hate the book, in fact I quite enjoyed some of it, the writing is excellent, but it just didn't grab my attention, I couldn't concentrate on it. I might try it again some time."

Rewritten review 15 Nov 2020
Profile Image for Rowena.
501 reviews2,516 followers
March 7, 2015
I read this book with a couple of close friends in mind, good friends from high school with mixed parentage who felt confused about, but have now resolved, their place in society. Protagonist Helga Crane is a similar such person, with a now-deceased immigrant Danish mother and an absent black father. Being both black and white Helga, “She, Helga Crane, who had no home” is trying to find her place in 1920s New York, where miscegenation is a taboo topic. She is an outcast but she’s so ideally positioned to see racial issues and perspectives, perhaps in ways that others cannot.She is constantly searching in a world where colour is so important. And the theme of colour is very evident throughout the book. At a party when she observes the crowd, this is what she sees:

“For the hundredth time she marveled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slid by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow, peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. There was yellow hair, brown hair, black hair; straight hair, straightened hair, curly hair, crinkly hair, woolly hair…” She calls this throng a “moving mosaic” which I found lovely, a celebration of the diversity found among black people.

I don’t think Helga is a very likeable character but I can’t say I blame her behaviour. Totally misunderstood by those around her, mistreated and disowned by her white family,abandoned by her father, with nobody really to help her, it's no wonder she built up walls… I looked at Helga’s internal and external struggles during the first part of the book and wondered how on earth anybody could live like that, with that sort of ambiguity, so I was glad when she decided to visit her Aunt Katrina in Denmark:

“Leaning against the railing, Helga stared into the approaching night, glad to be at last alone, free of that great superfluity of human beings, yellow, brown, and black, which, as the torrid summer burnt to its close, had so oppressed her.”

I liked how Larsen juxtaposed the Danish culture of Helga’s mother and the Black culture of her father. It was very interesting to see how Helga was perceived by people in Denmark. I found myself relating to this exotification aspect as I’d experienced it too. I shudder when people use the word “exotic” to describe those with darker skin because now I understand that that’s a form of othering. Being seen as “A decoration. A curio. A peacock” may have been flattering at first, but it got old pretty quickly to Helga. And I think for those of us who’ve been in similar positions to Helga, the realization of being used or exotified comes eventually and becomes easy to spot:

“To them this girl, this Helga Crane, this mysterious niece of the Dahls, was not to be reckoned seriously in their scheme of things. True, she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t at all count.”

Helga's experiences in Denmark were interesting especially in her reaction to living in a country where, although she is othered, she doesn't have to deal with poverty or racism, and she's welcome in society. But her feelings about the America she seemed to have detested speak to how we perceive home differently when we are no longer there:

“Strange that she had never truly valued this kinship until distance had shown her its worth. How absurd she had been to think that another country, other people, could liberate her from the ties which bound her forever to these mysterious, these terrible, these fascinating, these lovable, dark hordes. Ties that were of the spirit. Ties not only superficially entangled with mere outline of features or color of kin. Deeper. Much deeper than either of these.”

There is a great literary criticism essay on this book in “Women of the Harlem Renaissance” by Cheryl A. Wall. I may have to re-read it now I’ve read this book. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7...
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
December 27, 2019
Slow moving and reflective, Quicksand sketches a detailed portrait of a biracial woman’s inner life. Set in Harlem and Copenhagen at the height of the 1920s, the story follows Helga, born to a Danish mother and an African-American father, as she moves between America and Europe seeking refuge from racism and the social marginalization she faces from white and Black communities alike. Insecure about her identity, Helga’s full of self doubt, feels estranged from wherever she finds herself, and frequently indulges in fantasies about the future. The novel’s repetitious, centered on female interiority, and alternately plays into and subverts racial stereotypes, in a way that recalls Gertrude Stein’s fiction. The work’s not nearly as nuanced or hypnotic as Larsen’s other novel, Passing, and seems best read after that.
Profile Image for Samadrita.
295 reviews4,676 followers
September 14, 2015

It's galling when a book does not keep the promises it makes at the outset. There's a problematic discord between Larsen's finely crafted sentences and the rather amateurish splicing of theme and plot. And this constant discrepancy morphs into a bothersome enough flaw that is responsible for those 3 stars.
Life wasn't a miracle, a wonder. It was, for Negroes at least, only a great disappointment. Something to be got through with as best one could.

In a way this is a failed bildungsroman wherein the female protagonist attains wisdom at the expense of complete obliteration of self. And yet the blow of this tragedy is dulled by Helga Crane's relentless forthrightness which the authorial voice brings out with nary an attempt at novelty. None of her conflicted feelings are conveyed through the buffer of imagery or more intricate wordplay. Every strain of her troubled thoughts, every bout of angst-ridden contemplation is dressed up in layers of already-arrived-at conclusions, and made as obvious as daylight. And it is precisely because of this hackneyed narration the gravity of the race tragedy never registered with me. (Reading a rather complexly structured House Made of Dawn side by side might have set the bar too high for this one.)
Go back to America, where they hated Negroes! To America, where Negroes were not people. To America, where Negroes were allowed to be beggars only, of life, of happiness, of security. To America, where everything had been taken from those dark ones, liberty, respect, even the labour of their hands.

Like every other tortured hero/heroine in literature, there is tension between Helga's private and public selves which refuses to abate despite her best efforts. She is a pariah anywhere she goes, unable to belong, unable to come to terms with the fact of her own alienation. There is the seductive appeal of a Harlem, its theaters, art galleries, jazz bars abuzz with the possibility of a renaissance for a persecuted community. It silently beckons her to give up on the white half of her inheritance. There is also the lure of using her mulatto woman's beauty to earn the approval of charmed Europeans intent on fetishizing her physical attributes. But Helga drifts from one wrong decision to another, getting farther and farther away from any destination of her liking, eventually plummeting to the depths of social oblivion which she fears the most.
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.

The ending should have hit me in the gut. It did not. This is possibly because I was only ever bluntly told about Helga's insecurities and emotional vulnerabilities, seldom shown. Here's to hoping Passing fares better in this regard.
Profile Image for Fabian.
957 reviews1,623 followers
January 18, 2019
Not as complete or as beautiful as "Passing", though most of the same themes are kept intact. That in a conservative environment nothing changes is absolutely correct--will the times ever change? Looking at the news, at national happenings, the answer is a nice, dark, heavy no.

There are some similarities to Woolf's legendary Clarissa Dalloway--much meditation and inside-the-head narration, with very little poetry, actually. This novel bashes the reader repeatedly in the head: yes, it sucks to be a woman; yes it sucks to be of color. Society makes things very difficult. But, wait, what does make Helga so special? That she is a woman and colored. That's all. She suffers indignities like everyone else. The end. And there's sisterhood, & stuff....

"Quicksand": Not worthy of the canon, even though the Harlem Renaissance is quite an achievement. Just because its part of that group, doesn't quite make it an essential read. Like I've said, "Passing" is a way better novel.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,217 reviews1,962 followers
April 23, 2017
4.5 stars
This was Nella Larsen’s first novel, published in 1928 and it has autobiographical elements in it. Helga Crane is the daughter of a white Danish mother and a black father. We follow her over a number of years; initially as a teacher in an all-black school in the south. Then she lives in Chicago and Harlem, before moving to Denmark to stay with her mother’s relatives. A number of suitors pursue her and are brushed aside. Crane returns to America and following a religious experience marries a southern preacher. Pregnancies and unhappiness follow.
That is a rapid dash through the plot which doesn’t do it justice; Helga Crane is a much more interesting character than that. Crane is trapped between two racial identities she struggles with her own identity and never really feels she belongs anywhere although she is in touch with her own sexuality; unusual in a black female character at this time. She tries a number of different ways and modes of living, none of which bring her any satisfaction after a brief period of novelty; she is at odds with the world. As Elisabeth Hudson writes;
“I believe that in writing Quicksand, Larsen was attempting to convey her view that, in American and European society in the 1920s, black women were marginalized to such an extent that there was no place where they could truly be free.”
Helga Crane’s unease pervades the novel and the reader instinctively knows that each new start is a false one for the protagonist. The reader knows by the end that Crane has run out of her own inner resources and what happens to her is now out of her control, but she does have an awareness of the exploitation and repression she has suffered.
One interesting point of the novel is Larsen’s use of colours. Skin colour:
“For the hundredth time she marvelled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slid by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow, peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. There was yellow hair, brown hair, black hair; straight hair, straightened hair, curly hair, crinkly hair, woolly hair…”
But also the colours of clothes and fabrics, which in a way add to the hollowness of Helga Crane’s world. The writing is stylish and the are some amusing moments, but also a sense of inevitability about the end, It does deserve the plaudits it has received.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,359 reviews793 followers
December 17, 2015
Worst of all was the fact that she understood and sympathized with Mrs. Nilssen’s point of view, as she always had been able to understand her mother’s, her stepfather’s, and his children’s points of view. She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden. She understood, even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not.
Someone at the helm of NYRB Classics fell asleep at the wheel, for the fact that this work has not yet been granted a rebirth in their gorgeous editions is a travesty. Penguin Classics may have it, as does the 1001 Books Before You Die, but neither place implies the incisive ferocity of these pages, a whirlwind of fervent life and unbearable insight embodied in the body and mind of one black woman. The power of this book is the like of which I have never seen, least not in its entirety, and it is no wonder I had to stumble across it in search of something far more popular. I've picked up parts in Walker, Rhys, Maugham, carefully collegiated categories that must never, ever, intersect, certainly not within the work written 86 years ago. That would prove too inspiring a thing by far.
But gradually this zest was blotted out, giving place to a deep hatred for the trivial hypocrisies and careless cruelties that were, unintentionally perhaps, a part of the Naxos policy of uplift.
I do not claim to be Helga Crane, or even Nella Larsen for that matter, but familial blood is a desiccated thing next to the kinship I've through them found. It is a matter of minds in different worlds that for all the voids of time and skin convene here, in this place of the written word and the life it spawns. It is my unyielding effort to balance the hard-earned uplift with the rapid descent, the nightmare of thought and the inability to give even that up for the world. It is what I know of my privilege and what I feel of my pain, the exacting measures I have put myself through to translate both into a single language, and the ultimate reassurance that I may live so long as I let everyone else do the same. Neither Helga nor Larsen had happy endings; it is their living by truth I must look to.
“And the white men dance with the colored women. Now you know, Helga Crane, that can mean only one thing.” Anne’s voice was trembling with cold hatred. As she ended, she made a little clicking noise with her tongue, indicating an abhorrence too great for words.

“Don’t the colored men dance with the white women, or do they sit about, impolitely, while the other men dance with their women?” inquired Helga very softly, and with a slowness approaching almost to insolence. Anne’s insinuations were too revolting. She had a slightly sickish feeling, and a flash of anger touched her. She mastered it and ignored Anne’s inadequate answer.
It is the everyday hypocrisy that leads the lambs to the slaughter. Half black, half white, female, sensitive, pretty, intelligence as sharp as a whip if life would let it. Anyone at all would learn something from it if they weren't stopped by the usual bigotries, the patriarchal tendencies to denigrate the efforts of the "weaker sex" to exist in full acknowledgement of mind and lust, the white-washing over the two options of death sentence or selling of self for the most practical price, the oppressed cutting each other down to size in hopes of the fruits of their religion fed to them by the oppressors. It is the same old story, but so rarely told with such keen cutting and beautiful strength of self. It is a story that belongs to today, giving the lie to all that self-gratifying talk of progress, making it all nothing but appropriation, silence, and gilt.
…he was not the sort of man who would for any reason give up one particle of his own good opinion of himself. Not even for her. Not even though he knew that she had wanted so terribly something special from him.
I will never regret having been born far too late to have experienced the Harlem of Helga's time. The technology of the modern age means I have the resources to come to grips with any instances of hypocrisy, a network with which to imbibe and put forth any thoughts at all that are necessary for the building of my own self, a bulwark with no need for the customary solutions of travel, career change, whatever commitment to the unknown which shows its true colors as a path towards damnation only when I no longer have the means to escape it. Were I to live in the midst of this book, my quicksand would be quicker. That coming to terms of the self is far more worthwhile than any seeming happiness of an ending.
For Helga Crane wasn’t, after all, a rebel from society, Negro society. It did mean something to her. She had no wish to stand alone.
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews967 followers
March 10, 2016
Helga Crane seems awkward and capricious, as introverts (like me) often do, at odds with a world better shaped to the needs of extroverts. But Helga's struggle to find a place for herself, she feels, is caused by her heritage, visible and invisible. Biracial, black, she is rejected by her white family, yet raised among whites, starved of any recognition or respect, finding refuge in aesthetic and intellectual pleasures, both drawn to and repelled by the joyous abandon of Harlem's parties and jazz clubs, scornful also of the black activists who talk of racial equality but, fed on white supremacy, cannot help but privately disdain aspects of blackness.

Escaping Naxos, a black college in the South, where the contaminant dust of antiblackness hangs thick and heavy over everything, from clothes to curriculum, she is at first elated by the style of New York, by the liveliness and keener race-consciousness of Harlem. Yet soon she chafes at what she sees as its insularity and self-satisfaction, its double personality. She sneers at 'uplift' and is repelled by respectability politics. Though she shares trappings of middle-classness with her milieu, her own harsh experiences of racism and the hopeless struggle to find work as an educated black woman in Chicago (where there are plenty of jobs for black domestic workers with references) make her sensitive to their relatively naive analysis of whiteness.

She moves again. Told that her Danish aunt 'always wanted [her]' she seeks her family, and finds, for the first time, an enthusiastic welcome, interest in her, admiration, she is feted! The Danes have, it seems, never seen a black woman, so they treat her like a fabulous beast. Her aunt dresses her in the bright, revealing clothes she imagines black women wear, she parades and displays her and encourages her to pose for artists, to find a husband. But Helga, though susceptible to the pleasures of narcissism and being surrounded by beautiful garments and decor ('Things! Things! Things!') is acutely aware of the dehumanising effect of exotification, as Rowena notes in her illuminating review 'she didn't at all count'

Time passes, pleasantly and yet unreally, in a spirit-sapping malaise. Loneliness pulls her back to Harlem, but she finds no escape from it. The opening scene of the book pictures Helga blissfully alone in a large room where light and shadow mingle. She and the tale move on, but the emptiness of the room follows her like an aura.

What tips Helga into desperation seems to be the frustration of her romantic life, since her racial status and personality both work against her being considered by others a desiring and desirable subject. Stricken after a disappointing encounter, she undergoes an inadvertent baptism by falling into a gutter. Lacking the will to direct her own fate now that every avenue out of misery seems exhausted, she ceases to struggle, she embraces a life she never wanted, she sinks into the quicksand of patriarchal Christianity. Yet this places her to reach radical conclusions about race and religion that were evidently not being voiced by her activist contemporaries:
And this, Helga decided, was what ailed the whole Negro race in America, this fatuous belief in the white man's God, this child-like trust in full compensation for all woes and privations in 'kingdom come'… How the white man's God must laugh at the great joke he had played on them! Bound them to slavery, then to poverty and insult, and made them bear it unresistingly, uncomplainingly almost, by sweet promises of mansions in the sky by and by.
This critique is in sharp contrast to, for example, Frederick Douglas' framing of white supremacy as unChristian, passionately argued at the end of his Narrative.

Larsen's style is refined, elegant, lingering over moments of aesthetic pleasure with tactile words: descriptions exude a bodily happiness fuelled by both sophisticated and elemental sources. Helga attempts to articulate an affirmation of blackness in response to assimilationist 'uplift' ideology, an effort hampered by her location in white supremacist contexts on one side and the objectifying essentialism of her aunt on the other. Still, the story's melancholic core, reflected in the dull, weak coloured clothes of the staff and students at Naxos, is much leavened by Helga's occasional lovingly appreciative moods, vibrantly evoked by sensitive, precise prose.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book562 followers
October 16, 2021
Helga Crane is a mixed-race woman, who never feels she fits into either world that is offered her--that of the Southern blacks in the school at which she teaches in the beginning of the story, that of that progressive blacks who befriend her in Harlem, nor that of her Danish white relatives, who treat her as an oddity when she flees to Denmark. She is a person without a racial identity, and that, for Nella Larsen, is worse than perhaps any other fate she could be sentenced to.

It is sad to watch Helga’s descent from a respectable job and a possible good marriage to a life that could not be deemed acceptable for any of us. The novel is well-titled, for Helga steps into the quicksand of her life and is pulled under slowly, even as she struggles mentally with how to break the cycle and pull free.

In addition to tackling the complex world of race relations and racial identity, Larsen addresses religion as the great panacea that she sees as a method of keeping the black population contented with their unacceptable lives and focused on rewards that can only come in the hereafter. The Reverend Pleasant Green is as unpleasant as can be, but one cannot help thinking he is but another victim of the situation and of Helga’s innate dissatisfaction.

We are given an array of female characters with which to contrast Helga. Anne Grey, a black woman who hates white people and has a position of importance in the black community, and Miss Denny, a black woman who seems to accept people in terms of who they are individually and without consideration of their skin color, are two of the most interesting. The women are complete opposites, but both seem to have found what Helga cannot, a place of belonging.

So much of this novel feels like an autobiography. I could not help thinking Nella Larsen must have lived many of these feelings of alienation and being treated as an oddity herself, considering how her own life story parallels Helga’s fictional one in so many details.

Like Passing, this novel is a wonderful insight into the mind and attitudes of blacks in the 1920s, particularly those of mixed race. Nella Larsen is required reading in my view. Her books are short, but her stories have a between-the-eyes impact that is unforgettable.

Profile Image for Jola.
184 reviews278 followers
April 11, 2023
My two pet peeves are partly responsible for the disappointment I feel after having read Quicksand (1928) by Nella Larsen, a blend of a social issues novel and a psychological study:
➔ People who blame the whole world for their failures, never themselves.
➔ People who are obsessively self-absorbed.
Unfortunately, Helga Crane, the protagonist of Quicksand, is both.

When we meet her for the first time, she is a young teacher of English at a school for Black children in Naxos. Feeling frustrated with her job, her colleagues and the place, she decides to quit out of whim. It is just the beginning of her adult life scenario which basically will consist of escapes.

Helga Crane is like the migratory bird in her surname. She hopes that a change of environment and location will be a remedy for her troubles. The result? As her problems are mostly emotional, the escapes do not fix anything, quite the contrary: she feels more and more lonely, more and more out of place. According to Marcel Proust, The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. Seemingly, Helga's escapes are voyages of discovery but in fact she refuses to look at herself with new eyes. Her biracial status and traumatic childhood marked her for life. The racism and segregation she experiences on a daily basis make things even worse.

I felt truly sorry for Helga but her constant whining, not to mention the compulsive repetitions of the same mistakes, does not make her very likeable, although the author explains clearly what the reasons behind her behaviour are. The novel is partly autobiographical so the strong connection between Nella Larsen and her protagonist did not surprise me.

There is a strange contrast in Helga: on the one hand, she criticizes social problems, on the other, she indulges in luxuries, the current situation permitting. Then she does not give even one thought to the possibility of helping the poor and oppressed, for example during her fairytale-like stay in Denmark which, by the way, was the oddest part of the book. Another thing I did not find convincing was Helga's sudden religious awakening and its consequences.

I am so happy exquisite Passing , with its economy of language and richly drawn characters, was the first book by Nella Larsen I read. To be honest, I doubt I would pursue reading her other novel after Quicksand, despite the things I enjoyed in it, for instance, the strong anti-racist message and the plethora of fascinating everyday realia. Still, I was craving more sublime portrayals of the characters and a more nuanced exploration of Helga's emotional vacuum and dilemmas.

Jeunesse by Palmer Hayden.
Profile Image for luce (that loser crying on the n° 2 bus).
1,438 reviews4,046 followers
January 26, 2023
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Larsen excels at disquiet atmosphere. The unease is positively palpable here. Larsen's presents her readers with an unstinting character study of a deeply alienated woman whose estrangement from herself and others lead her to become increasingly detached. There are instances were Larsen is lethally precise in capturing Helga's perspective and in articulating her thought pattern. Helga's mind is more often than not an unpleasant and or depressing place, as she views the world around her with the kind vitriol and misanthropy you can expect from the likes of Esther Greenwood. But there are also moments were Helga's inner workings are inaccessible to us. There is something volatile and deeply ambivalent about but Helga and her narrative. The narrative is always thrumming with the possibility of violence (psychological, physical), of conflict, of something worse to come. Because Helga has experienced and continues to experience such Othering, almost by default, she comes to do the same to the people in her life, with very self-sabotage-y results. Helga's internalized racism and her vehement opposition against interracial couples and her disconnection from the people and the communities around is not necessarily portrayed in a sympathetic light but neither villainized or condemned for it. If anything Larsen allows us to see the circumstances that contributed to Helga's alienation.
Larsen's genius for psychology aside, I once again felt frustrated by the overall pacing and the ending.

“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.”

Similarly to Passing, Quicksand is a study of ambivalence. But whereas Passing centered on the complex dynamic—which ranges from enmity to a kinship of sorts—between two light-skinned Black women in 1920s New York, Quicksand follows the experiences of one woman, Helga Crane, whose restlessness sees her moving from Chicago to Harlems before venturing out to Copenhagen. Helga, daughter to a white Danish mother and a Black American father, has always felt like an outsider. By the time the narrative begins, Helga's mother is long dead and her father is MIA. Helga's white relations refuse or are unwilling to acknowledge her existence. Her lack of ‘people' leads her to feel a degree of alienation, even resentment, towards the Black community.

“She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity.”

At the beginning of Quicksand Helga is a schoolteacher in Naxos but feels increasingly dissatisfied by her environment. She makes the impulsive decision to break things off with her beau, who also teaches at her school, and quit her job in pursuit of a more fulfilling life and perhaps a place in which she could ‘belong’ (“No family. That was the crux of the whole matter. […] If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t ‘belong’.”) Although in Harlem she makes new acquaintances and friends, Helga’s loneliness and restlessness do not dissipate. She decides to once again leave her life behind by traveling to Copenhagen to live with an Aunt.
This is more of a slow-burner than Passing. Helga is a very inward-looking character, and her narrative is light on dialogue or action. Her reflections on her identity, race, America, her unshakable unhappiness will definitely resonate with contemporary readers. Yet, Helga herself remains in many ways a bit of cypher. This is undoubtedly intentional, as the narrative underlines other characters’ impression of her (that she is elusive, 'frigid', standoffish). The story perhaps would have benefited from less telling and more showing (there were quite a few scenes that are summarized in a rather speedy fashion and I wish we had gotten to read witness them ‘first hand’).
Still, I love the way Nella Larsen writes. Her writing is phenomenal, her prose ranging from being elegantly perceptive (a la Edith Wharton) to searingly direct (a la Toni Morrison). The longing and ennui experienced by Helga also brought to mind the titular heroine in Madame Bovary (even in the desire they both feel towards material goods).
It is saddening that Larsen published only these two novels. Quicksand is a fascinating character study, one that manages to capture the time and places in which Helga lives. The narrative is at once opaque, never quite revealing Helga’s true feelings, and startlingly lucid, especially when it comes to conveying Helga’s self-divide.

“Life became for her only a hateful place where one lived in intimacy with people one would not have chosen had one been given choice. It was, too, an excruciating agony.”
Profile Image for Sue.
1,272 reviews549 followers
August 31, 2017
After reading Larsen's Passing, I wanted to read her other novella for comparison. Both are concerned with matters of race, the place of black people in the United States of the 1920s and 1930s. Both are at least partially set in Chicago and New York's Harlem. Both refer or reflect, to varying degrees, the Harlem Renaissance. But the protagonists are different, reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of their childhoods, their acceptance of their selves, their marriages, friendships, and above all, their feelings about being black, being Negro, in white America.

Quicksand is, if anything, to my mind, even sadder than Passing. Helga's happy times seem based on running away from questions she simply can't answer. So any solution is short lived. Another aspect of the novel I noticed and also recalled from Passing is the often oddly constructed sentences. I wondered if this was a reflection of the time at all. Then I wondered if it might be designed to force the reader to slow down and concentrate. It did seem that the structure was smoother when Helga was in a happier phase of life.

All in all an interesting read.
Profile Image for Faith.
1,900 reviews534 followers
August 10, 2020
While I could appreciate the insight into the times and circumstances in which Helga lived, she was such an insufferable malcontent that I couldn’t really like or empathize with her. If I had read this book before I read “Passing” I might never have risked reading that (much better) book. My experience with this book was admittedly influenced by the fact that I listened to the audiobook narrated by Christine Glassman. Not only was she absolutely the wrong narrator for this book, I don’t think she should narrate at all.
Profile Image for Nidhi Singh.
40 reviews164 followers
September 26, 2015

They feared and hated her. She pitied and despised them.

It is not just pity and contempt that simmer in this cauldron, but a great deal of ambiguity, loneliness and isolation from wounds that date back to the earliest memories of childhood and are livid within the unremitting cruelty of the present. ‘Quicksand’ is story of a life riddled with an indefiniteness that is an assault on a concrete sense of identity and self. The feeling of happiness is fleeting and so is the feeling of having arrived somewhere, of having found a home. For Helga Crane, there is always that sense of not belonging, of in-between-ness, ‘a lack of somewhere’, a strenuous attempt at self-discovery that never reaches the conclusiveness it must have hoped for. To be both black and white, and to be neither, to not be accepted, propel her to a free floating, directionless sojourn towards that ‘elusive,’ ‘vaguely familiar’, ‘something’, which she can never completely understand and define for herself. The narrative traverses in a major inner complexity; of society's claim on deciding the identity of a woman, and of the predicament she struggles with when the one imposing the identity is undecided about the same. It fails to mark her, put her in a category, as Helga’s life story and her 'difference' are among things that are ‘not mentioned-and therefore they do not exist.’

She could neither conform nor could be happy in her conformity.

I consider Helga’s mixed racial identity to be liberating in a sense. It provides her with an acute sensitivity and intelligence which can scrutinize the hypocrisy of the middle class black society. She is perceptive enough to discern her othering and objectification as a biracial woman. It also saves her from possible victimization by men like Olsen, who see her as an exotic object for possession, as she proclaims, ‘I don’t at all care to be owned. Even by you.’ Her understanding of her situation is different from a black woman like Anne, who in her racial fervor, deconstructs everything into the rigid binaries of ‘black’ and ‘white’, a kind of consciousness that doesn’t breathe outside the margins of race. But for Helga, there is a sense of independence that comes with not totally belonging to any race: 'I haven’t got any people. There’s only me. So I can do as I please.' She consciously wants to use her ambiguous racial identity, to search for more complex experiences and perspectives which go beyond the superficiality and generalizations, into which things are reduced to for someone belonging to one community. Helga, in a way, shows how such associations can limit individuality. She doesn’t want to confine herself, to the smallness of Naxos, to the ties of race, 'not if it means the suppression of individuality and beauty'. But it is also to be noted that such immovable perceptions of race have affected her in a way that she also seems to reciprocate them:

Looking at these, Helga caught herself wondering who they were, what they did, and what they thought of. What was passing behind those dark molds of flesh? Did they really think at all?

Her coming of home feeling at Harlem is juxtaposed with the feeling of tasting 'some agreeable, exotic food.' She can never really belong here, because her own understanding of race has been constituted by her internalization of a sense of inferiority since childhood, that comes to her with her association with the black race. To not to ‘be yoked to these despised black folk’ as she does have an option to not belong: 'She didn’t belong to these dark segregated people. She was different.' For Helga, individuality seems to be more important than loyalty to any race. She considers the overcoming of her racial boundaries as admirable. But the attempt to explore the 'white' side of identity at Copenhagen closes in a revolting experience of othering and exoticisation, where Helga as a woman is reduced to 'superb eyes', 'color', 'neck column'. A decoration, a curio, a peacock, to be ‘gaped at, desired’ and paraded as an exotic artifact of racial ambiguity. Extreme anger intermingled with great aversion, and alienation pulls her back to Harlem. Neither the black nor the white society can ever see beyond the 'difference', recognize the humanity that is there. She would always be that something that waits at the mysterious edges of definition and familiarity; which no one is yet ready to meet.

No. She couldn’t stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back.

Helga loses her hold and plummets into a ‘Quicksand’ of religion, domesticity and maternity with the hope of a total effacement of self, in search of religion as a source for happiness and stability. But this generous coating of calmness, placidity, and the lull of self-delusion, gradually wears down. Helga’s destruction arises from her tragic position as a thinking, intelligent woman who always struggles with the feeling of ‘incompleteness’ while being completely aware of her situation in a society which ‘others’, essentializes, and domesticates the identity of such a woman. This awareness is especially painful when the intention here is not to be a rebel, and not to have ‘the wish to stand alone.’ If passivity is accepted, it cannot but remain pierced by the torturous feeling of hopelessness and an utter disappointment with life which had talked of different things, promised a better ending.

She understood even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not.

Profile Image for Ajeje Brazov.
726 reviews
May 23, 2021
Helga, la protagonista di questo romanzo, il primo dell'autrice, è una ragazza di colore nell'America degli anni '20. Un'America che viene da 50 anni di abolizione della schiavitù, ma che nel concreto non è cambiato nulla, specialmente nel Sud. Così Helga inizia la sua personale avventura e il suo viaggio di crescita interiore, immersa nell'ipocrisia, nella violenza, nelle vessazioni e nelle discriminazioni che il popolo afroamericano ha e continua a subire. La questione razziale è un argomento pressante seppur necessario, ma Helga si sente troppo oppressa e cerca qualcosa d'altro o semplicemente vuole fuggire? Proseguirà il suo tormentato viaggio, che poi non è altro che una testimonianza delle sofferenze che il popolo afroamericano e della gente di colore in genere da parte dell'uomo bianco, ma nello specifico disegna un'inquietante, struggente e disperata figura della donna afroamericana di quel periodo, cercando di estrapolare l'essenza di come si possa sentire, nel più profondo intimo, un'anima privata delle libertà fondamentali che dovrebbero esserle proprie di natura.
La scrittura a flusso di coscienza, con rari momenti di dialogo, rende la lettura così coinvolgente, senza interruzioni. Nella Larsen disegna il suo quadro struggente, con pennellate, a volte grossolane e pesanti, con un risultato tridimensionale sulla tela, come a senteziare al lettore la gravità e la voglia febbrile di cambiare le cose, poi invece con pennellate più sottili e delicate, quasi come se stesse disegnando qualcosa di etereo, forse per portare in superficie la delicatezza candida della fragilità della vita ed infine altre volte con un tratto deciso, bordi ben marcati, ad indicare che i sogni, i pensieri, le aspirazioni debbono essere un elemento non offuscato ed evanescente, ma solida struttura, su cui instaurare il presente ed il futuro.

"La religione, dopotutto, aveva la sua utilità. Attenuava la percezione del reale. Spogliava la vita delle sue verità più crudeli. Aveva i suoi vantaggi soprattutto per i poveri, e per quelli di colore.[...]
Ed era questo che affliggeva l'intera razza nera in America, questa vana fede nel Dio dell'uomo bianco[...]
Che risate si doveva fare il Dio dell'uomo bianco per l'enorme scherzo che aveva giocato loro! Li aveva costretti alla schiavitù, poi alla povertà e agli insulti, facendoglieli subire senza che si opponessero, quasi senza che si lamentassero, con le dolci promesse di dimore celesti in futuro."
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
1,018 reviews1,183 followers
November 26, 2018
I don't really know how to start reviewing "Quicksand". It is a little book that seems so short, but in less than 200 pages, Larsen created a story that affected me much more than I had anticipated. I was not terribly surprised to learn that the story of Helga Crane is in many ways, very autobiographical: if anything such knowledge gives this novella an even more thought-provoking weight.

When the story opens, Helga Cranes teaches at an elite black college in Alabama, but this position that some might find enviable, dissatisfies her: the hypocrisy of an entire black community trying to imitate the way of life of white people, to the point of worshiping their Christian god, which in Helga's eyes, obviously hasn't done them any favor, becomes too much to bear, and she decides to leave, thinking she might find a place where she could be herself - either in her hometown of Chicago, or wherever life may take her.

Helga is not really a likable protagonist: she is restless, snob, often selfish and manipulative, and she has an unfortunate tendency to make spontaneous bad decisions. She gets comfortable in a setting, but when things stop going her way, she sees no other way of dealing with dissatisfaction but to flee to what she considers a better situation. But as frustrating as she can be, she is also the perfect pair of eyes through which one can explore the impact of racial background and gender on identity, the fluidity of said identity, and how other's perceptions restrict and unconsciously mold you into something you simply might not be.

A transnational identity can sound worldly and exciting, but it also means that in many ways, one simply does not truly fit anywhere. Helga does not identify with the black communities she knows, most of whom would probably shun her if they even knew of her mixed-race background - something over which she obviously has no control. As for her white relatives, they either simply reject her or treat her as an exotic trophy to display. Helga simply wishes to be herself, to have and live by an identity that transcends race, but where does that leave her? Wherever she goes, she is isolated because she feels restrained by either of her cultural background, as they both fail to represent and allow her to express herself fully. And at the end of the day, the restrictions society imposes on women end up trapping her much more than her racial status.

Larsen's prose has a rich sensuality to it which I really enjoyed: she has a true knack for summoning textures, colors and tastes very vividly, and she painted a stunning portrait of a complicated and fascinating era.

This book moved me in a way I can't quite explain. The question of identity, whether it is racial or cultural, is something that I think about a lot, and this particular story truly captures the internal struggle of someone who can never feel at home anywhere because somewhere in their background, the lines were blurred. Very warmly recommended.
Profile Image for Gabrielle Grosbety .
123 reviews78 followers
March 30, 2021
I was, for better or for worse (😊😬), fully invested in this story and the character of Helga, but then the ending came and I was more than done with her and how self-serving, painfully aloof, and uncaring she was towards others. Her emotions and any sense of resolution were also sped through at a rate that I couldn’t connect with in how this narrative was just rushing by on an irrational, half-way deranged train track to find a way to be done or complete.

By the end, there is such a collapse of all reason and lack of sincerity in what Helga decides to do that disappointed me in that for all the soul-searching she never arrives at anywhere authentic enough for me to believe that she has any capacity for compassion, genuine growth, empathy, or connection to others. For all the journeying and traveling she can’t ever get away from herself and that is precisely the problem that hinders her.

In that same vein, there could have been more meaningful focus on moments and scenes because throughout I never was able to get a clear handle on the truth of Helga’s interiority and why she felt compelled to recklessly abandon everything, but perhaps the closest I could get is that it became too wearing, too mundane, too permanent, reflecting how Helga can’t be contained for too long, as she longs at different intervals for flashiness, intrigue, novelty, and belonging.

She unfortunately also continually gives in all too willfully, and at times selfishly, to every whim and passing desire no matter how tumultuously it will affect the lives of those around her. She tries on different identities and lives in hopes that one will finally suit her and that part was fascinating because among different places she feels different types of free, whether it be physically or more spiritual.

I was additionally most interested in dissecting and understanding the sense of malaise that lives inside of Helga as I think we all can at different stages have a tormented restlessness that occupies our inner beings. That part of the story was emotionally, sensitively captured, the prose elegant, as ennui overcomes our capacity to go on as we remain problematically stuck in the here and now, with no chance at a more tempering respite or escape.

We each have inner flirtations with danger as we can’t always err on the side of caution when it comes to taking control of our own lives, but Helga takes the reigns in such a way that felt all too cataclysmic, like she was bowing out of any personal responsibility for certain things, and far from how I wished parts of her existentially frustrated dissatisfaction would’ve been explored. Although this did have redeemable, eye-opening parts and meditations, I’d give Nella Larsen’s Passing a try instead or before you read this!
Profile Image for Dagio_maya .
932 reviews280 followers
May 30, 2021
Sola, nella stanza immersa in una dolce penombra, la protagonista Helga Crane riflette.
Le tende tirate come a voler lasciare fuori un mondo ostile, lei nella semioscurità di una stanza elegante e su tutto regna il silenzio.
Questo è il suo momento:

appuntò un foglio di carta attorno alla lampadina sotto lo schermo dell’abatjour, desiderando avvolgersi in un’oscurità ancora più confortante.”

Il desiderio di solitudine deriva da un mondo di relazioni deludenti nella scuola in cui lavora.

Sono gli anni '20 e siamo nell’Istituto scolastico per neri a Naxos, immaginaria cittadina del Sud statunitense:

“Era diventata un luogo di interesse turistico all’interno della regione abitata dai neri, l’esemplificazione della magnanimità dell’uomo bianco, la confutazione dell’inefficienza dell’uomo di colore.”

Helga non sopporta più l’ipocrisia dilagante.
La sua è una fase di disincanto:
dopo la speranza di poter insegnare veramente e formare delle menti libere, affiora la consapevolezza di una messa in scena ipocrita che illude in un avanzamento razziale.

Pubblicato nel 1928, Quicksand è rappresentativo dell’Harlem Renaissance, movimento letterario a cui Nella Larsen apparteneva.

Helga Crane, con la sua pelle meticcia (come l’autrice stessa, è figlia di madre danese e padre nero) è emblematica nella sua continua ricerca di equilibrio.
Rifiutata dalla famiglia di origine, costretta a nascondere ai neri la sua origine bianca, impossibilitata nel riconoscersi un’appartenenza nella società bianca.
Helga Crane costruisce la sua alterigia come uno spesso muro di difesa ed è costretta a reinventarsi continuamente.
In lei c’è una continua rinascita, nella spasmodica volontà di afferrare una forma definitiva come donna della borghesia afroamericana.

Da Naxos, al cuore pulsante di quei frenetici anni ’20: New York ed Harlem, nello specifico.
Una comunità che serra le fila per (ri)costruire la propria dignità.
Non si tratta solo di orgoglio razziale ma anche di confini sociali.

Poi c’è l’Europa, la Danimarca, dove ci si ritrova a vivere un’esistenza che valorizza il colore della pelle ma come oggetto esotico da esibire.

Che tipo di donna vuoi essere Helga Crane?
Cosa cerchi per essere felice?

Una vita di continue fughe.
Una grande capacità di buttarsi tutto il passato alle spalle e ricominciare da capo lasciandosi, ogni volta, travolgere da un’apparente felicità.

La ricerca di una forma definita è estenuante e si rischia, poi, di doversi accontentare magari rifugiandosi in un passato che sa anestetizzare tutta quella passione.
Così Helga Crane trova la sua oasi di pace, sposa il reverendo Pleasant Green (oh! che nome significativo!) ma la vita coniugale e la maternità sono la risposta o solo un modo per annullarsi?

Povera Helga Crane, lei che amava la bellezza, lei che era fiera della sua indipendenza, finisce col perdere tutto, anche il diritto di gestire il suo corpo...

"La sua mente era confusa, agitata, girava vorticosamente. Nel suo corpo emaciato infuriava la disillusione. Un caotico tumulto. "
Profile Image for Debbie Zapata.
1,833 reviews44 followers
November 23, 2016
This novel follows the life of Helga Crane as she struggles to find her place in the world. And she must struggle, for she was a mixed-race child in an era when that was a sin marked against her from the day of her birth.

The back cover blurb tells us 'Helga's mother is white, and her father is black ~~ and absent. Ostracized throughout her lonely childhood for her dark skin, Helga spends her adult life seeking acceptance. Everywhere she goes ~~ the American South, Harlem, even Denmark ~~ she feels oppressed. Socially, economically, and psychologically, Helga struggles against the "quicksand" of classism, racism, and sexism.'

I have no idea if Helga's thoughts as written here are the usual in this type of situation. I can certainly see how anyone could struggle with the idea of their identity, but other 'mixed' characters in the book were happy and successful in their lives. What kept Helga from such acceptance? She did not feel at home with either set of 'her people'. And she never felt at home with herself, either. At least not for very long.

Knowing that this compelling story was based on the author's own life made it even more poignant. Life is hard enough, why must anyone be forced to endure society's foolishness that results from having a different skin color than other people? When will Man ever learn to look beyond the surface and see only the person within? We still judge and condemn The Other to this very day. We are so blind.

Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,550 reviews602 followers
April 19, 2018
[4.5 stars) Happiness is elusive for Helga Crane. "As always, at first the novelty of the thing, the change, fascinated her. There was a recurrence of the feeling that now, at last, she had found a place for herself, that she was really living."

Set in the 1920s, the novel has a surprisingly modern feeling to it. I find it amazing that in just 125 pages, Larsen captures Helga's experience as a bi-racial woman, in four very different places - teaching at an insular boarding school, amongst the black elite in Harlem, as an exotic figure in Copenhagen and finally falling into the quicksand of the deep south. The novel is not just about one troubled life but also about racism and racial identity in the US.
Profile Image for Claire.
664 reviews284 followers
June 29, 2020
As I read the last sentence, I shouldn't have been surprised, because the end was coming, there was no time for another escape, for the pattern of Helga's life to continue. "Oh, my" I uttered, as understanding of the meaning of the title, "Quicksand" sunk in. It had claimed her.

What a unique voice and depiction of a rootless young woman searching for her place in the world, bereft, not finding a sense of belonging within family, when the world around her judged the two sides of her family as if they are different peoples because of the colour of their skin.
If you couldn't prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn't belong.

Helga's mother was a Danish immigrant, her father an African-Caribbean man of whom she had little or no memory or connection to his family. After her mother dies Helga (15) is sent to a boarding school, where life is a little easier for her, except for the growing awareness, like a hole inside her, that unlike her peers, she has no siblings, no family, no roots, no longing for home, no real happiness.
They had mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, of whom they spoke frequently, and who sometimes visited them.

Her life becomes a search to fill the void, an attempt to purge herself from a self-loathing of having been exposed to both sides of her heritage and their disdain for each other, unable to fully embrace either one, as she is both. And from the opening pages you know you are in the presence of a woman who is on a quest to discover if this is all there is, this half life she's been living until now.

In one sense, her ability to get up and change her circumstances is admirable, empowering even, her refusal to accept the status quo and take action, her departing words carry unexpected strength. When she resigns from her teaching job mid-term, she doesn't hold back in telling the principal how much she hates the school and his misguided perception of who he thinks she is, with her conflicted feelings of her biracial, illegitimate, non-Southern lineage.
In the girl blazed a desire to wound. There he sat, staring dreamily out of the window, blatantly unconcerned with her or her answer. Well, she'd tell him. She pronounced each word with deliberate slowness.
"Well for one thing, I hate hypocrisy. I hate cruelty to students, and to teachers who can't fight back. I hate backbiting, and sneaking, and petty jealousy."

When she encounters those who see her, like Dr Anderson, she feels the urge to abandon her selfish need to flee, responding to a mystifying yearning to serve, until he too says the words that will inflame her ego, pushing reason away, refusing it a place in her thought process.
Someday you'll learn that lies, injustice and hypocrisy are a part of every community. Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them. If they didn't, they couldn't endure. I think there's less of these evils here than in most places, but because we're trying to do such a big thing, to aim so high, they irk some of us more.

Her loss and lack of rootedness creates an incessant restlessness, her education, beauty and even her bigoted relative provide her the means to be independent. But that which she wishes to escape from, continuously pursues her, seeking solace in the outer world, she avoids the one path that might bring her serenity, to look within.

She leaves Nashville for Chicago, where she discovers the need for connections and references and is brutally rejected by her Uncle's new wife, who can't bear to harbour the thought they might be related.
She saw herself for an obscene sore in all their lives, at all costs to be hidden. She understood, even while she resented. It would have been easier if she had not.

She finds her way to New York and finds solace there, until the restlessness returns. The descriptions of her encroaching discontent are vivid, realistic, perhaps even a real memory, described by Jacquelyn McLendon Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Nella Larsen as the more "obviously autobiographical" of Larsen's two novels.

A windfall from her Uncle provokes an impulse to seek out her family in Denmark, whom she has dim but fond memories of from a childhood visit. Again she begins life anew and initially revels in it, and enjoys being the object of attention, until the vague discontent returns.
She desired ardently to combat this wearing down of her satisfaction with her life, with herself. But she didn't know how.

We are lured into the belief she may have found the right path, as leaving Denmark signifies a return after hearing the wailing undertones of songs remembered in her youth strike her longing heart, remove her defenses, making her homesick for more than just the land of her birth.
For the first time Helga Crane felt sympathy rather than contempt and hatred for that father, whom so often and so angrily she had blamed for his desertion of her mother. She understood, now, his rejection, his repudiation, of the formal calm her mother had represented. She understood his yearning, his intolerable need for the inexhaustible humor and the incessant hope of his own kind, his need for those things, not material, indigenous to all his peoples' environments.

The plot then takes a significant and surprising turn and the ending too, contributing to what no doubt makes this an interesting novella for discussion, as to the origins and perpetuation of Helga's difficulties, separation from the mother, from one's lineage and family, identity, race, cross-cultural societal differences, what it means to belong and the expectations of being a woman.

I loved it. Even if it felt unfinished, like a young woman's coming-of-age as she learns who she is, first from the outside, in terms of how others perceive her and also how she perceives the outside world, initially with each move, falling into the same trap of finding solace in that which is external to her. She is ripe for an inner journey of transformation, that which follows the realisation that who ones parents and family are, isn't who "I am". Instead she finds something else, a fork in the road and it is as if the author can not take us further.
Profile Image for Jesse.
446 reviews451 followers
June 3, 2013
To begin by stating the obvious: Quicksand is an aptly named book. And while its resonance with the experiences of the main character, Helga Crane, are made clear by the novel’s ambiguous concluding chapter, I also found it a perfect summation of my experience as a reader as well. For Larsen’s exquisite prose is subtly deceptive: delicate, and yet so incisive and sharply observed, and just like Helga’s moment-to-moment indecision never seems to add up to much in and of itself, Larsen quietly strings together glittering chains of little observations—the cut of a “scandalous” evening gown, the texture of an antique embroidered handbag, a spontaneous gesture to slight an annoying suitor—that suddenly, unexpectedly transform into expanses of heavy and oppressive chainmail that become suffocating. There’s a certain stasis to the narrative of Quicksand, and I initially found myself struggling against it until I realized that it perfectly mirrors Helga’s mindset and perception of both herself and the world around her.

The narrative is initially posed as a kind of tale of self-discovery, a process which ends up spanning two continents and a surprising number of racial, gendered, sexual, and class-centered milieus. And what at first seems like self-sufficiency and even courageousness begins to molder bit by bit around the edges, and the haunting line “but it didn’t last, this happiness of Helga Crane’s” begins to resurface constantly like an inevitable refrain accompanying each turn of events.

This resigned melancholy is probably why the novel never becomes sensationalistic, hysterical, moralistic, or even overtly angry, all qualities the material would seem to to easily lend itself to. Larsen’s focus seems elsewhere, which constantly leads Helga and her narrative into unexpected spaces, in both a literal and metaphoric sense. I appreciated, for instance, the depiction of the black expatriate experience in Europe, demonstrating how the escape from American racism held its own, often hidden price in the objectification of “exotic” blackness, and I couldn’t banish from my mind the specters of Josephine Baker, Paul Robson, and others while reading about Helga’s experiences in “progressive” Copenhagen. In the end Quicksand was a protracted, mournful lament instead of the harrowing shriek against racism or sexism (or any number of other social ills for that matter) that I had initially expected it would be; instead it turned out to be something more ambiguous, more difficult to pin down and get a handle on—and in the end I found myself all the more devastated because of it.

"No. She couldn't stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back."
Profile Image for Lois .
1,868 reviews479 followers
April 22, 2018
This is a fictionalized account of the author's own life and experiences. Extremely Tragic Mulatto.
I find it interesting that 'Helga'/ Nella so accurately read the bullshit self-hating aspect to The Tuskegee Institute under Booker T. Washington, at the same time the main character is very antiblack. The way Helga describes Black People and their culture is demeaning. I've since read this author latter in life 'passes'. I can see that based on how much of her philosphy and outlook makes up this novel.
Profile Image for Kate.
1,242 reviews2,228 followers
October 4, 2018

I """read""" this for class aka i skimmed it and took notes when we discussed it in class

seems like it'd be a good book though! I just did NOT have time for that lol
Profile Image for Bill.
219 reviews48 followers
June 10, 2023
Author Nella Larsen was born in 1891 in Chicago to a white Danish mother and a black father, lived in Copenhagen with her mother and an aunt for a few years as a child, graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, and worked at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Helga Crane, main character in Larsen's debut novel, shares a fictionalized version of this background and we meet her as she decides she's going to return to Chicago because she doesn't fit in Alabama. This begins a quest to find somewhere in the world where she feels she belongs, that takes her to Harlem, back to Copenhagen, and finally, back to Alabama. Larsen masterfully portrays interactions that leave biracial Helga feeling alienated from Blacks as well as whites, and explores her revulsion with Black's embrace of Christianity, among many other topics. For a novel with so much interior dialog and consideration of race, Larsen is often surprisingly sensuous in descriptions of color, clothing, and emotions. Recommended.
Profile Image for Janelle.
1,216 reviews166 followers
December 13, 2020
This is a powerful short novel about a young biracial woman trying to find fulfilment in her life. First published in 1928 I found it quite modern. Helga Crane has a Danish mother and a black father who abandons them. Her mother remarries a white man and Helga is an outsider in her own family. The story begins with her teaching in a black school in the south and being dissatisfied. She leaves and the novel follows her restless movement back to Chicago, then Harlem, then to her aunt in Denmark where she is treated like an exotic exhibit and back to the US where she marries a preacher and moves to Alabama and has children. The ending is quite depressing and pessimistic. Although Helga appears to be self centred and obsessed with possessions I found her a sympathetic character. She wants to be accepted for herself. It was a fascinating read.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for jo.
613 reviews497 followers
September 26, 2016
i marvel at the magic that was the harlem renaissance, when african american writers and artists, still fresh from the civil war, during jim fucking crow, carved themselves a space in which to talk about race so freely, so controversially, so open-woundedly, you know the world would not be the same if the harlem renaissance hadn't happened. and thank you thank you thank you harlem renaissance for having opened space for women and queer people with such generosity. wow, what a time.

the language of this book alone testifies to a freedom of experimentation that blows the mind (the 20s were good from this point of view for everyone in the english speaking world, though, not just for african american authors). larsen, a nurse by training, writes FANTASTICALLY, using fragments, repetition, rephrasings and idiosyncratic language with a freedom that feels amazing to this 21st century reader. so much so that i want to go back and re-read, not only Passing, but also James Baldwin's nonfiction, Zora Neale Hurston, and all these magical writers who can shed some light on the horror and pain of these brutal american days (for posterity, i'm writing this as african american men and woman are slain by the police with the disregard and impunity of rats, daily). i feel that if you are white and a reader and live in america in 2016, it is pretty much your duty to read up on african american literature. cuz the stories, the stories -- how else can you get the stories that led us here? who will say them to you? the books, that's who.

the protagonist of Quicksand, helga crane, is a woman who does not belong anywhere. she tries this and tries that and nothing works. the book ends abruptly, something critics have not liked, but i liked the end cuz it displaced me. you can't wrap up this story. this story won't let itself be wrapped up (see what i just did? this is the kind of rephrasing larsen employs throughout the book. love).

and of course the book is about what it means to belong, to be an african american, and whether "being an african american" has to mean anything at all. and it's also about what it means to be an african american woman, a sexually alive african american woman, who feels impossible and inappropriate desires and doesn't know quite how to satisfy them, most likely because there is no way to do so.

but to me, to me this book is about a shitty childhood, and how a shitty childhood leaves you unmoored forever, bereft of a home, a place to call your own, a place in which you know you will find love. to me, this is a story of trauma -- racialized trauma, for sure, but also the basic trauma of an abandoned childhood.
Profile Image for leynes.
1,115 reviews3,029 followers
February 19, 2018
In one sense, Quicksand might be called an odyssey; however, instead of overcoming a series of obstacles and finally arriving at her native land, Larsen’s protagonist has a series of adventures, each of which ends in disappointment. Whenever Helga believes that she has found her home, and with it her identity, she eventually comes to realize that she is still just a visitor in someone else’s country.

When Larsen’s novel about the life of Helga Crane appeared in 1928, the Harlem Renaissance was at its height. Works by African American writers were in great demand, especially those stories that depicted the fantasies of white men and women about the sexual freedom and happy excitement they associated with the black experience. Despite the white public’s expectations, however, many African American literary artists, including Larsen, wrote novels and poems that presented fuller and more accurate portraits of black men and women.

Nella Larsen introduces the main character Helga Crane, a young girl of twenty two, with delicate but well turned arms and legs. Helga teaches at an elite southern school named Naxos (referenced to a Greek Island in the Aegean Sea). The school was an example of the theory that African Americans needed to improve their lot, the policy of “Black Uplift”. The education at Naxos, implored no new ideas and tolerated no new innovations, in other words individualism was very discouraged. Helga becomes disenchanted with the hypocrisy at the prestigious school and begins re-evaluating her career choice as a teacher.

“Negro society,” Helga decides, is “as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society.” This proves true in Helga’s life, for as she travels from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark, she does not fit in anywhere. When she lives among blacks, she longs to experience the white side of her soul; but when she lives among whites, she misses being around black people.

In Chicago, her white uncle rejects her. She moves to Harlem, but there she finds a well-established and cultured black middle class full of hypocrites and obsessed with racial issues. All Helga wants to do is transcend race, but she is unable to do so either in black or white society.

Helga inherits a good deal of money from her mother’s brother. This enables her to move to Denmark where she is welcomed by her white relatives. The Danes, however, go beyond mere acceptance of the beautiful young woman, treating Helga as an exquisite and exotic beauty. In Denmark, she is a supra-being, not a fellow being. “[I]t’s hard to explain,” she states when refusing the marriage proposal of a celebrated white Danish artist who is in love with her. “I simply can’t imagine living forever away from colored people.”

The novel ends with the once exotic, beautiful, intelligent Helga lapsing into depression, conquered by the “quicksand” of racial identity, social class and sexism that she has spent a lifetime trying to overcome.

Both this novel and Nella Larsen’s second novel, Passing, reflect the author’s own quest for acceptance. “You can probably get a pretty good idea of Nella Larsen’s personality from the depiction of her alter ego, Helga Crane, in Quicksand,” says T. N. R. Rogers in his introduction to the novel. Larsen was born in Chicago in 1891. Her mother was white and her father was black. Her mother remarried a white Danish man with whom she already had a white daughter who was one year old when they married. Larsen’s biographer, Thadious M. Davis, believes Larsen was sent to live in a shelter and eventually found her way to Denmark to live with relatives for a while before returning to New York where she became a prominent and respected voice in the Harlem Renaissance literary movement.

While this is a difficult and ultimately depressing novel, it is also a powerful portrayal of the suffocating disillusionment and entrapment experienced by racial minorities during the 1920s and 1930s.
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
Nella Larsen opens Quicksand with these lines from the poem Cross by Langston Hughes. It is a fitting introduction to a novel that portrays the challenges encountered by a biracial woman struggling to escape the oppressive forces of race, class, gender, and religion. Larsen harshly criticizes the forces that have shaped the cultures of both black and white society while narrating the story of a woman who, much like herself, sought but never found happiness.

Like the work of many other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen’s work was largely forgotten until she was rediscovered by feminist critics in the 1970s. Since then, her novels have been republished numerous times and have received serious scholarly analysis. Larsen’s work was seen in the 1920s as a variation of the “tragic mulatto” theme in literature; however, most critics now value Helga Crane as a probing study of a woman’s conflicts along the intersecting lines of race, class, and gender. As a result, years after her death, Larsen has gained more widespread respect and appreciation than she ever attained during her brief literary career.
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