When childhood friends Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry cross paths at a whites-only restaurant, it’s been decades since they last met. Married to a bigoted white man who has no idea that she is African American, Clare has fully embraced her ability to “pass” as a white woman. Irene, also light-skinned and living in Harlem, is shocked by Clare’s rejection of her heritage, though she too passes when it suits her needs. This encounter sparks an intense relationship between the two women who, as acclaimed critic and novelist Darryl Pinckney writes in his insightful introduction, reflect Larsen’s own experience of being “between black and white, and culturally at home nowhere.”
In a culture intent on setting boundaries, Clare and Irene refuse to adhere to expectations of gender, race, or class, culminating in a tragic clash of identities, as their relationship swings between emotional hostility and intense attraction.
“Nella Larsen’s Passing is one of those American classics that I’ve always meant to get around to. A new edition is out today from Restless Books, with a handsome cover (and interior illustrations, all by Maggie Lily) and an introduction by the novelist and critic Darryl Pinckney. If I’m going to tackle a classic, I like to have a teacher to help me along the way…. It’s a remarkable book, and Maggie Lily’s dark illustrations end up feeling very appropriate.”
—Rumaan Alam, The New York Times Books Newsletter
Praise for Passing
"Quicksand and Passing are novels I will never forget. They open up a whole world of experience and struggle that seemed to me, when I first read them years ago, absolutely absorbing, fascinating, and indispensable."
"Discovering Nella Larsen is like finding lost money with no name on it. One can enjoy it with delight and share it without guilt."
“Nella Larsen didn’t just eschew tribes — she never had one to begin with…. Unsparing on the madness of racial classification but frank, and very beautiful, on the lure of racial belonging.”
—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
“[Passing] is about changing definitions of concepts like race and gender, and the inextricable relationship between whiteness and blackness. It is a meditation on the uneasy dynamic between social obligation and personal freedom. It dramatizes the impossibility of self-invention in a society in which nuance and ambiguity are considered fatal threats to the social order.”
—Emily Bernard, Electric Literature
“I have read and re-read Passing more than a dozen times. Each time I think I can hear Larsen's own voice more clearly: asking, demanding really, that each of us abandon the labels we've been assigned and celebrate the story that we are.”
—Heidi W. Durrow, NPR
“Passing broke literary ground as the story of two racially and sexually ambiguous women written by another. Social boundaries can be permeated, but not without cost.”
—Natalie Cate, The Guardian, 1000 novels everyone must read
About the Author:
Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker in 1891 in Chicago. Her mother was a Danish immigrant and her father an immigrant from the Danish West Indies. Larsen attended school in all white environments in Chicago until she moved to Nashville to attend high school. Larsen later practiced nursing, and from 1922 to 1926, served as a librarian at the New York Public Library. After resigning from this position, Larsen began her literary career by writing her first novel, Quicksand (1928), which won her the Harmon Foundation’s bronze medal. After the publication of her second novel, Passing (1929), Larsen was awarded the first Guggenheim Fellowship given to an African American woman, establishing her as a premier novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Nella Larsen died in New York in 1964.
About the Introducer:
Darryl Pinckney, a longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books, is the author of two novels, Black Deutschland and High Cotton, and two works of nonfiction, Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy and Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature.
About the Illustrator:
This beautiful, illuminating tale of hope and courage is based on interviews that were conducted with Holocaust survivor and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov—an unforgettable love story in the midst of atrocity.
“The Tattooist of Auschwitz is an extraordinary document, a story about the extremes of human behavior existing side by side: calculated brutality alongside impulsive and selfless acts of love. I find it hard to imagine anyone who would not be drawn in, confronted and moved. I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone, whether they’d read a hundred Holocaust stories or none.”—Graeme Simsion, internationally-bestselling author of The Rosie Project
In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.
Imprisoned for over two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism—but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.
One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.
A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov's experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.