Colour me white…
😀 😀 😀 😀
When Irene accidentally meets her childhood friend Clare in a tea-house in Chicago, she’s not altogether surprised to discover that Clare is ‘passing’ as white. Clare had always wanted the good things in life and, when she disappeared from home as a teenager, her friends suspected she’d found a way to make use of her beauty. Now Clare is married to a rich white man, John Bellew, with whom she has a child. But John hates ‘niggers’ and Clare knows her marriage would be over if he ever found out about her mixed heritage. Irene rather despises Clare for, as she sees it, a kind of betrayal of her race, but nevertheless can’t resist the appeal of her charm. And so, their friendship is resumed – dangerous to Clare’s marriage, but as it turns out, dangerous to Irene too…
Despite the title and basic premise of the book, this is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. Irene is respected in her society in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor and they have a relatively wealthy life. But we soon learn that Brian is discontented – he hates living in a country where he is treated as inferior because of his race. Irene on the other hand loves her life and wants nothing more than she has. Clare is the catalyst who brings this division into sharp focus, forcing Irene to question what’s important to her and to wonder if her marriage is as solid as she had always thought.
I appreciated that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on the race issues. Sometimes books become so polemical it feels as if the people are tokens rather than rounded characters in their own right – I’m thinking of Americanah, for example. In this one, none of the characters is defined entirely by race – the questions that absorb them most have little overtly to do with colour. In a way, that makes the incidents of racism feel all the more brutal and shocking when they do happen. Written in 1921 long before the civil rights movement really got underway, we see how white people felt it was totally acceptable to publicly and casually express views that many of us would now find repugnant (pre-Trump – sadly, it now appears to be the new normal again), and how black people, even wealthy ones, had no real recourse other than to accept it and try not to let it define their entire lives. Brian and Irene’s ongoing difference about how to bring up their sons encapsulates a debate that I’m sure must have been going on endlessly in the black community of the time – Irene wanting to shield them for as long as possible from the knowledge of how racist their society is, while Brian feels they should be taught early what to expect and taught to resent it.
The deeper question than simply colour is perhaps about the sense of belonging. Despite having wealth and a husband who loves her, Clare the risk-taker longs for the people and places of her childhood and is willing to gamble recklessly with everything she has for the fleeting pleasure of spending time back in that society. Irene on the other hand sees that same society as a place of security and contentment, and her sole desire is not to have her life disrupted. Both the women can tolerate the racism of their world so long as it doesn’t directly impinge on them. Brian, however, resents racism as a political thing, not just personal – a thing that makes him hate his nation and rather despise his peers for their acceptance of it. In him, we see the anger and discontent that would eventually lead to the rise of the civil rights movement.
The characterisation of Irene is the book’s major strength. It is from her perspective that the book is told, although in the third person. She operates within the conventions of her time, deferring outwardly to her husband, playing the little wife who’s always endearingly late for things and just a bit scatterbrained. But inwardly she has a core of steel – she has achieved exactly the life she wants and will defend it in any way she can. If that means she has to manipulate her husband to give up his dreams in favour of hers, so be it – she has the intelligence and fierce drive to do it, and the self-awareness to know that that’s exactly what she’s doing. But her slightly repelled fascination for her old friend allows Clare to sneak through her defences, and suddenly Irene finds she’s losing control of the situation – something she’s not used to and that frightens her.
I regret to admit that I think the ending is almost laughably silly, which is a major pity since I was loving it up to that point. I wonder if Larsen maybe just couldn’t think how to get her characters out of the situation she had so carefully and brilliantly crafted for them. Personally (and you don’t often hear me say this) I wished the book was a few chapters longer with a more complex and psychologically satisfying dénouement. But despite that disappointment, I still think this is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time, and would highly recommend it.
I was tempted towards the book by this excellent review from TJ at My Book Strings – only took me two years to get around to reading it!
This is the book chosen for me by the Classics Club’s #14 spin.