Review: Quicksand by Nella Larsen Quicksand by Nella Larsen

QuicksandQuicksand by Nella Larsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not sure how confident I am about the five stars just yet, this novel hit far too close to home. Quicksand is a bit like a modernist black Madame Bovary, if one wishes to be reductive, and I loved Madame Bovary.

Helga Crane is an unhappy schoolteacher at Naxos in Tennessee, chafing at the isolation and ostracization she feels being a bi-racial, class conscious woman in an all black institution in the South. She's 23 at the opening of the novel. I am 23. Too close!

However, Helga lacks a home and sense of identity, her white mother, an immigrant from Denmark, died when Helga was fifteen, leaving her alone but for her Uncle Peter, a white man who arranges for her education but otherwise remains the racially correct amount of distant toward her. Helga's father is absent but to my memory never finally accounted for. I presume he died when she was very young.

In the novel's opening Helga decides suddenly after two years at Naxos she can't bear another day of the place, quits without reference, breaks off her lukewarm engagement, and sets off to Chicago to apply to her Uncle Peter for a loan to get her on her feet. It's the beginning of a journey for Helga, a quest for something she can't define. Led astray by her own folly and inevitable inability to know her own mind, Helga searches for a home, an identity, and a balm to sooth the racial friction of her very being.

I read this novel for a literature class, and my classmate pointed out immediately how distasteful and unlikeable Helga is as a character. I may have to disagree, being that Helga is, for me, a caricature of possibility, a warning sign writ large. Likeable or not, she is the focal point of a series of very complex internalized issues, and a very interesting novel.

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