The book opens with the chance meeting of two light-skinned black women in a hotel bar in the 1920s. The woman are former friends, who have long since lost touch. Irene is a middle-class black woman, married to a doctor, with a busy Harlem life filled with children, friends and charity work; she is sometimes mistaken for “an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican…”.
Clare, meanwhile, described as a “blonde beauty out of [a] fairy tale”, is “passing” as a white woman, and is – disturbingly – married to a racist white man, with whom she has a daughter.
Passing as white in 1920s America has given Clare certain freedoms, but it also means that she is forever on edge, while denying herself a large chunk of both her personal history and her social connections. Irene’s uncloseted life is increasingly attractive to her, and she begins to spend more and more time with her, her family and her friends.
If Clare is ambivalent about her racial identity, Irene is ambivalent about Clare, and the novel unspools with a sense of grim inevitability to a devastating conclusion.
In the USA at the time of the novel’s writing, a person was considered black if they had at least one black ancestor: a definition so wide as to be fairly meaningless in, say, contemporary London. Larsen was herself half-Danish, while her father is thought to have been from the West Indies.
By the time of Larsen’s death in 1964 her work was out of print, and she couldn’t know that Passing would eventually be considered a late addition to the canon. I haven’t yet seen the recent Netflix film, but that is definitely on my list.
I’ve recently finished reading Brit Bennett’s 2020 bestselling novel The Vanishing Half, which was surely inspired by Passing. The premise is different, but resonant: two light-skinned black sisters grow up in Mallard, a US town solely inhabited by light-skinned black people (apparently based on historical fact), during the 1940s. They move away to New Orleans as rebellious teens, but their lives pan out very differently. While Desiree finds herself fleeing an abusive relationship and returning to Mallard as the single mother of her much darker skinned daughter, Jude, Stella “passes” as white, marrying her boss and living a life – and a lie – in middle-class comfort in a very white world. She is also, however, necessarily (she feels) estranged from her sister and mother and living in fear of discovery.
For me, Passing is by far the more assured novel, with its length ensuring tight plotting, and significantly more room for nuance. The Vanishing Half is much more sprawling, set over some 50 years, and bringing in other issues of identity, whether hidden, adopted or accepted.
As well as the focus on Desiree and Stella throughout their lives, it follows the trials and tribulations of Jude’s relationship with her trans partner Reese and Stella’s conflicted actress daughter Kennedy, but it all felt a bit baggy and formulaic. I’m sure it’s another candidate for a film adaptation, but I can’t really imagine that being anything but mediocre either.