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”.