The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – the masquerade of identity
It was hard to miss The Vanishing Half in 2020, it seemed to feature in so many “best books” and awards lists. Our book club read it when the paperback version came out in 2021 but it’s taken me until now to formulate any thoughts on Brit Bennett’s novel.
The framework concerns the Vignes twins who run away from their small, black community in Louisiana when they’re sixteen years old. They feel trapped by the smallness of Mallard, a town created for light-skinned African Americans “who would never be white but refused to be treated like Negroes”.
The sisters’ lives take very different paths. One girl, Deidree, marries a black lawyer but ditches him when he becomes abusive, returning to her home town with a dark-skinned daughter. Her sister Stella disappears completely into a new life, hiding her true ethnic origins even from her husband. She “passes” as a white woman and has a white skinned daughter who has no knowledge of her background. Somehow the two daughters discover each other.
Underpinning this simple sounding plot are themes of race and identity, particularly the idea of masquerading as something or someone else. Stella’s “passing’ is just one example. We also encounter drag queens, a transvestite, a chameleon-like bounty hunter and over-the-top soap stars. All are engaged in a form of pretence.
What they have in common is the continuous effort required to maintain the facade they have created. Stella begins by thinking that passing herself as white is a simple matter:
There was nothing to being white except boldness. You could convince anyone you belonged somewhere if you acted like you did.
But as the years pass, the need to “act white” at all times proves more of a challenge. She cannot let the pretence slip for a second in case some trace of her origins were to be revealed and the new life she has painstakingly constructed, come crashing down.
She hadn’t realised how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.
As the narrative moves from the 1950s to the late 1980s we see the consequences of the sisters’ decisions on each sister, but also and how this affects their offspring.
This is polished story-telling that richly evokes the atmosphere of multiple settings: from small town pettiness to laid-back smoky jazz clubs. The narrative moves at a swift pace, short flashbacks blending into present day chapters which often end on a slight cliffhanger.
There was a lot to admire in the book but it never wowed me in the way I thought it might. Yet I never felt strongly bought into the novel. It was almost as if Bennett tried to cover too many different examples of how an individual can adopt a fictive persona so we never got into any of these in depth. The character of Reese Carter, boyfriend of Desiree’s daughter, who is undergoing gender re-assignment had a lot of potential that wasn’t fully realised for example.
I didn’t dislike the book, just didn’t find it as engaging as all those awards and accolades would indicate.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Footnotes
Brit Bennett was born and raised in Southern California. After graduating from Stanford University, she gained an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. She is a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree,
The Vanishing Half, published in 2020 by Dialogue, is her second novel. It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021. You can watch an interview with her in which she discusses her book in the context of other novels about “passing”.
26 thoughts on “The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – the masquerade of identity”
Yeah I felt the exact same way about this- it just didn’t wow me.
Good to know that I wasn’t alone – most of the book club liked it more than I did
I really enjoyed it, however I read it from NetGalley just as a lot of other people were starting to read it, so I didn’t have quite the expectations others might have had coming to it later. I really enjoyed its dialogue with Passing and loved the full inclusiveness of the characters; I know some people minded the coincidences but I managed not to. https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/book-review-brit-bennett-the-vanishing-half/ is my review.
I’m not convinced I’ll read this, I apparently have a copy on my kindle but I think it was a 99p one that I thought my mum would like…but then she’s not really taken to having a kindle!
I thought it was just me. I like the theme of identity and the impacts of hiding, but overall I didn’t get the wow factor that everyone raved about. I too felt like she provided so many characters or themes that she could have developed more but never does. Good review. Thanks for putting into words what I could not.
It’s taken me forever to get to write the review because I couldn’t find the words either.
I found it very readable, but it didn’t make a lasting impression. Will be reading Passing soon, which I have high hopes for.
I’m like TavellinPenguin I think in that hype does tend to put me off. But many people I respect have liked this one, though I very much think that not every book is right for every person. I definitely would prefer to read Passing first!
I read about 150 pages of this and gave up, which I never do. I just couldn’t engage with this book at all for some reason.
I think I would have finished it even it I wasn’t reading it for book club because it was well written. Just not very compelling
Yes, well… this is why I think I’d prefer to read her earlier work, The Mothers. This one seemed overly hyped and the subject matter felt like a rehashing of “Passing” by Nella Larson, which was amazing!
Susan, A Life In Books also mentioned the Larson which sounds like a very hard one to beat.
I feel like TravellinPenguin. But if the book falls across my path, I’ll read it, on the strength of your review.
It’s good to keep an open mind because what doesn’t work for one reader doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it.
I have this to read although, like others, I was wary of the hype particularly as the theme bought to mind Nella Larsen’s Passing, a hard act to follow.
I’ve not read the Larsen so don’t have that for comparison to be fair. I only know that the book didn’t work for me.
I thought it was great, and I liked the way that it brought this issue into focus, and of course, the social conditions that made ‘passing’ an option that some took up.
Your reaction was similar to many of the book club members. It created a very lively discussion
I think the overarching theme is thoughtful but, yes, she may have attempted too much! I always like to see for myself what the hype is about!
I blow hot and cold on much publicised books. Sometimes the fact that the author is popping up all over the place in interviews turns me off the book. Sometimes however the curiosity kicks in and I want to know what all the fuss is about
Over hyped… not much to write about
I was wondering if it was just my mood at the time but now I’m seeing comments such as yours and thinking that’s not necessarily the case.
Recognise what you are feeling. I liked the novel, never got the wow-moment.
That’s just it Liliane. I never felt like I wanted to abandon the book or that it was a chore to read but equally I never felt enthused about picking it up to continue reading
There has been so much hype around this book. I’ve not read it. I tend to shy away from really hyped up books as I often find they don’t live up to my expectations even if everyone else in the world loves them! haha
I wouldn’t have read it but for the fact the book club selected it. To be fair I think most of the members rated it higher than I did.