The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett
The Vignes twins are like two halves of a whole: impulsive, smart-mouthed Desiree is a neat contrast to careful, practical Stella. Born in Mallard – a unique black community in Louisiana, set apart by the light skin of its inhabitants – they escape their town’s confines as teenagers, running away to New Orleans. Here, their paths diverge when Stella, after taking a job under the guise of a white woman, disappears. Desiree marries, briefly, before returning to her colour-obsessed hometown, a noticeably dark-skinned child in tow. Thousands of miles away, her sister is grappling with the weight of her decision to pass as white, knowing her own child must forever be kept at arm’s length. A masterful exploration of inherited trauma, this novel asks whether you can ever truly escape the past.
The Vanishing Half is Brit Bennett’s sophomore follow-up to her terrific 2016 debut, The Mothers, and it does not disappoint. A pacey and immersive read that spans the Jim Crow era through to the nineties, Bennett skilfully juggles multiple narrative strands as she traces the lives of the two sisters and their daughters over the years.
This is the kind of historical fiction that sets individuals against the backdrop of grand events, illuminating how the political shapes the personal. Desiree and Stella, their daughters Jude and Kennedy, the men who revolve around them – these are people who feel uneasy in the world. There are the twins, bound by a shared traumatic memory and forever missing their ghostly other half. There’s Jude, her dark skin marking her as an outcast within her own community. There’s Kennedy, resentful and wary of her unknowable mother. There’s Reese, a transgender man at a time predating surgical options in America.
In a sense, The Vanishing Half is a book of mirrors, the storylines playing off one another in clever, often tender, ways, while never becoming exact copies. Reading this work will expand your heart, and that is always what I want fiction to do.