I love a good multigenerational family saga with strong women at its heart – perhaps one like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing – and Brit Bennett’s latest book has been loved both by readers and prize judges. This The Vanishing Half review is going to join in with that praise! By coincidence, it’s the second of my Books of Summer ’21 and the second one about twins, although Desiree and Stella are less mystical than Hamnet and Judith, while still sharing a special bond. It is one that has almost been severed, or stretched to breaking by the choices they have made.
Desiree and Stella have grown up in the Sixties in a town in the South of the USA called Mallard, which was founded by their great-great-great-grandfather to be something of a refuge for light Black people. It doesn’t appear on any maps and most of their neighbours are descendants of the original families, often so light they could be mistaken for white.
You were supposed to be safe in Mallard – that strange, separate town – hidden amongst your own. But even here, where nobody married dark, you were still coloured and that meant that white men could kill you for refusing to die. The Vignes twins were reminders of this, tiny girls in funeral dresses who grew up without a daddy because white men decided that it would be so.
Then they grew older and just became girls, striking in both their sameness and differences. Soon it became laughable that there had ever been a time when no one could tell the twins apart. Desiree, always restless, as if her foot had been nailed to the ground and she couldn’t stop yanking it; Stella, so calm that even Sal Delafosse’s ornery horse never bucked around her. Desiree starring in the school play once, nearly twice if the Fontenots hadn’t bribed the principal; Stella, whip smart, who would go to college if her mother could afford it. Desiree and Stella. Mallard’s girls. As they grew, they no longer seemed like one body split in two, but two bodies poured into one, each pulling it her own way.
Desiree is especially keen to leave town, and it is her encouragement that sees the sisters escape one evening to New Orleans. The Vanishing Half opens with Desiree returning to Mallard with her young, very dark, daughter Jude in tow. Returning to somewhere she never wanted to be, looking for safety from a violent husband and having lost touch with Stella along the way, it is far from a triumphant homecoming.
When the story jumps ahead a little to Jude’s story of heading away from Mallard for college and catches up with Stella’s daughter Kennedy, the next generation are on very different trajectories. Jude is one of the darkest girls in Mallard and has not had a happy time with the neighbours and other school children. Kennedy is so fair she has no reason to doubt her mother’s ‘passing,’ but she is fascinated by her lack of a backstory. As the two cousins encounter and begin to learn more about each other, they also encounter others who are on their own journeys. Via Desiree and Stella, Jude and Kennedy, their partners and friends, Brit Bennett examines the changing issues around race through the Sixties and Seventies, as well as the colourism that exists in both white and Black communities.
Stella is a very complex character and one on the surface that it is hard to root for. She is passing as white, having left her home and mother behind, then cut all ties with her sister too. Although The Vanishing Half is set a couple of decades later, this brought to mind Nella Larsen’s Passing, which would be good to read alongside it. Stella’s husband is rich and his family think she is hiding a poor background, little suspecting the reality. So much is at stake for Stella, although her husband is nowhere near as bigoted as Clare’s in Passing. There are opportunities she has as a white woman that she would not have had otherwise, but the fear that she lives with touches all her relationships, making her also a stranger to her daughter and husband, meaning she can never feel really known nor let her guard down. She also turns to bigotry with all the zeal of the converted.
For Stella and for Jude’s partner Reece, as well as for Desiree and Jude, there is a theme of feeling comfortable with who you are and where you have come from in a world that does not value alternatives to the default narratives. It is an ambitious work and written at a pace that allows characters to unfold as you spend time with them. Although, as with any book that considers many characters like this, there are ones you would happily read more about (a spin-off about Jude’s experiences at medical school, please!) and others that you could do with a bit less from (Kennedy was, for me, slightly less riveting), but this is a minor quibble. In a way it is unfair to malign her too much as Kennedy has a difficult road to walk, being the only one of the four who doesn’t really know much about her roots, she is a lot less anchored than the rest. Feeling anchored, having a sense of self and a knowledge of the past runs through The Vanishing Half and makes it an absorbing read with lots to think about.
I know that The Vanishing Half is on many people’s lists to read this summer, have you read it or are you planning to do so soon? Hope all your summer reading is going swimmingly, as ever, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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