History plays cruel tricks on some writers. They’re just getting a handle on their era when it’s over. That happened to Nella Larsen, a leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. By the Depression, no one would publish her steely dissections of black life. With An Intimation of Things Distant, a fine and timely collection, history makes partial amends.
Abandoned by her black father, rejected by her white mother and stepfather, Larsen felt out of place everywhere in segregated America. The same goes for Helga Crane, the heroine of her tough, elegant novel Quicksand. A New World Madame Bovary, skittish and dreamy, she flees into marriage with an Alabama preacher who gets her pregnant five times in five years. Larsen’s second novel, Passing, is equally good, an intricate double portrait of a Harlem doctor’s wife and the outcast friend she winds up murdering. In silky prose, Larsen untangles ugly knots of race, gender, and class conflict with an honesty we’ll never get enough of. A