Discontented sybarite Helga Crane wakes one morning realising that she can’t endure another day in her soulless job, and ups and leaves that day. So I warmed to her from the start. From here on it’s a tale of snakes and ladders; from unemployed and starving in a Chicago YWCA, to glamorous socialite in New York and minor celebrity in Copenhagen, to a shack in Alabama. As a rootless, mixed-race young woman Helga can find nowhere she belongs, or people she belongs with. Her white family in Chicago shun her; she rejects the servile conformity that being black in the south requires; she feels no common ground with the New York bourgeoisie and their endless debates on racial equality, or with the Harlem party crowd. As each new beginning and new chance of happiness and freedom fades to disappointment and frustration, the author’s choice of title for the novel becomes ever clearer, until finally the two things Helga always rejected most vehemently – marriage and children – trap her forever. No, it doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a desolate ending, in fact, and the novel is all the stronger for it. Reader, I married him – and it was the biggest mistake of them all.
Helga is a wonderfully complex and character; rash, aloof, spiky, proud, uncompromising, self-absorbed, more interested in the latest fashions than the social justice issues of the day. Her conflicted reallness rather than her likeability carries the novel, and her quest to find a life that doesn’t involve sacrificing herself to a husband, or children, or a cause, or a menial job, or stifling social conformity is absolutely believable. But those are the only choices available, thanks to the double bind of sex and race. I loved this book for its memorable, difficult heroine, and its clarity on the range of cages offered to women. It’s actually a much more enjoyable read than all this suggests; there is some lovely prose, cutting wit, and insightful commentary. But the message is stark, as it should be.