I was first introduced to Brit Bennet in 2020 with her exceptional debut novel, The Mothers. It was unlike anything I had read in the longest time. It was such a refreshing and unique take on contemporary America and I immediately knew that Brit Bennett would become an author I’d take an interest in. I was pleased to find out that her second novel The Vanishing Half, was published earlier last year and I ordered myself a copy.
The Vanishing Half tells the story of Identical twin sisters Stella and Desiree’s escape from the small stale town of Mallard and into New Orleans, to forge a new life for themselves. Both sisters are fair skinned and white passing, something which the younger twin Stella experiments with, initially accidently, but ultimately as a way to make a new life for herself, one that she can never hope for as a Black Woman in America. Desiree, abandoned by her sister, reluctantly returns to Mallard, fleeing an abusive marriage, with her dark-skinned daughter initially set on finding her way out again, but finding herself trapped within the towns invisible walls and her long suffering mother. The story develops over the decades and follows the sisters and their separate lives until the two teenage daughters of the twins meet unexpectedly at an event. The family is once again pulled together by the threads of the womb.
The story also includes several other characters, all with their own strained and complicated relationships and identities. Desiree’s daughter, Jude, falls in love with a Trans man called Reece, running away from his family in order to become his true self, this storyline juxtaposes Stella’s own desire to pass as a white woman and live a lie about her true identity. Early, Desiree’s partner, is abandoned by his family and left to survive on his own. Brit Bennetts subtle exploration or family ties and relationships, especially over the 5 decades this book is set, and in the context of two estranged identical twins, is really interesting and one of the most absorbing storylines I’ve read in a long while.
The main themes of this historical novel are Identity, racism, and colourism. There are scenes of extreme violence that are difficult to read, but them the novel is set in the 1930’s and racially motivated violence was a reality of that time (as it continues to be!). Brit Bennett uses a mirroring technique to create a cast of characters, who much like the twins, have an opposite character somewhere in the story. The diversity of the book is certainly one of its many selling points.
I haven’t read any books about passing before so for me this was a completely original concept. I know colourism continues to plague communities of colour internally and externally, but to read about a whole life built around this lie was fascinating. Stella isn’t the villain of the piece, colourism is. Its truly sad to think of a young woman having to shed her entire life to make something of herself. To live in the fear of being exposed and over the years grow to hate who she is. What starts as a small lie, snowballs to consume her and she lives in the perpetual fear of being exposed for who she really is. This is most striking in her relationship with her husband and daughter. And although Stella fled her own mothers’ home, she would seemingly go to any length to keep her daughter close to her. It’s absolutely engaging, and I can see why this book is so popular with reading groups as there are many levels within each storyline.
I know its not necessary to add my voice to the hype around this book. Its already a bestseller and apparently HBO have bought the rights to turn the book into a limited series. I WANT to add my voice to the chorus. I think this is a rare kind of novel, it stays with you and makes you question so much of what we take as given. Its beautifully constructed and in many ways difficult to read as it does tackle so many problematic issues, but it is also rewarding and insightful. There are so many wonderful novels out there but there are a handful that are more than that, they make us question our preconceived notions about life and challenge us to see difficult realities. I would say this is one of those novels.