Today I bring you the review of a book that has been causing a bit of a stir.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
‘The Vanishing Half is an utterly mesmerising novel. It seduces with its literary flair, surprises with its breath-taking plot twists, delights with its psychological insights, and challenges us to consider the corrupting consequences of racism on different communities and individual lives. I absolutely loved this book’ Bernardine Evaristo, winner of the Booker Prize 2019
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.
Praise for Brit Bennett:
‘A writer to watch’ Washington Post
‘Bennett allows her characters to follow their worst impulses, and she handles provocative issues with intelligence, empathy and dark humour’ New York Times
‘A beautifully written, sad and lingering book’ Guardian on The Mothers
About the author:
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and earned her 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, and her essays are featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.
I thank Little Brown Book, UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel in the first place, although later I also purchased my own copy which I review here.
This is the first novel by Brit Bennett I read, although I’m aware that her first novel, The Mothers, was very well-received, and this one has been highly praised and regarded as well. And, in my opinion, it deserves it.
The description of the book provides a fairly accurate summary of the main points of the plot, and I won’t try to be too inclusive when I mention the many topics the author touches on: race is paramount (is race only skin-deep?, different types of racism, the changing attitudes over the years, the burden of internalising other people’s values and what that does to the characters’ sense of self…), identity (while one of the characters lives a lie, a trans man abandons his birth biological gender to truly become himself), domestic violence, family, LGTB, rural versus city life, the importance of education, mothers and daughters, Alzheimer’s disease, love… It is a family saga, a story of two twin sisters and their daughters and how their lives split up at some point, sending them into completely different directions.
I’ve mentioned the issue of race, and that is the main focus of the book. The little place, somewhere in Louisiana, where the sisters are born is peculiar already when it comes to race. Although all the inhabitants are African-American, they are all so light that an outsider would not be able to tell they are not white. They are proud of it and consider anybody who is a shade darker than they are their inferior. But, of course, the local white people know, and that has terrible consequences for the girls, who lose their father due to a lynching (for an imagined crime the man had not committed). It’s not surprising that they leave the place as soon as they can, but once in New Orleans things are quite difficult, and one of the sisters, Stella, ends up passing for white to get a job. That changes everything, and the sisters’ lives end up going in totally different directions. Although from the reviews I read I realised that many readers might be unfamiliar with the concept of ‘passing’, it has appeared in novels and even movies over the years. I recommend Nella Larssen, a female author from the Harlem Renaissance, whose novels Passing and Quicksand are fascinating and deserve to be better known, but both movie versions of Imitation of Life, although in a far more melodramatic fashion, deal with the topic as well, and in the musical Showboat we have similar concerns (and talk of miscegenation and the ‘one drop of blood’ dictum), and concepts that might appear bizarre now (like quadroon, octoroon, [Alexandre Dumas Jr was an octoroon if we apply that classification, and Alexandre Dumas father a quadroon], or high yellow) but made a big difference in the past, when it came to the treatment somebody received. Some of the readers don’t feel the book goes into these issues deeply enough, but this is a novel, and realistically, it would be impossible to discuss all the aspects of it and create a fictional story readers cared for as well.
The main characters of the novel are the two sisters, Stella and Desiree, and their two daughters, Kennedy and Jude. While the two sisters are identical twins, Kennedy and Jude could not look and be more different —Kennedy is blonde, has blue eyes, has lived a life of privilege, and has always been self-centred. Jude is dark-skinned, suffered prejudice and abuse as a child and grew up without a father, is hard-working and determined, and has always cared for her family and for others— but their lives still converge and collide at times, bringing some momentous changes to their lives. There are many more characters in the story, some more important than others (Early plays an essential role in Desiree’s life, and Reese complements Jude), and there are many people they come across: friends (I particularly liked Barry, who becomes a drag queen on the weekends and is a great agony aunt), neighbours, work colleagues… The first two parts of the novel centre mostly on Desiree and her daughter, while we only get to know more about Stella and Kennedy later in the book. While the central characters are well-drawn, that is not the case for some of the others, and they are not all sympathetic, not even the protagonists, but I felt the author manages to make their actions and their emotions understandable, even if we don’t like them that much. I wasn’t totally sure about the way Reese’s experiences are dealt with in the book. We hear about his difficulties and his process as a trans man, but this at times feels like an afterthought, and some readers have questioned how his story might appear to be linked to the concept of ‘passing’, although I don’t think that was the author’s intention (he sheds his previous identity and is happy to leave it behind, with no regrets, no matter how hard the practicalities are, while Stella struggles and feels she is living a lie).
The story is narrated in the third person, mostly from the point of view of the four female protagonists, although we are also given a brief insight into some of the other characters that come into the sisters’ lives, and we hear a bit more about Early and Reese’s thoughts and experiences. The way the story is told might be problematic for many readers, as the point of view often changes within a chapter, and although the changes are not excessively difficult to follow, keeping the story straight does require a degree of attention, especially because the chronology is not linear either. We go forwards and backwards in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, although the story moves forward overall.
The writing is lyrical and precious at times, harsh at others, and the rhythm flows and ebbs, being quite contemplative in parts (as it befits a book about memory and identity). This is not a page-turner, but I felt the pace suited the novel perfectly. I had to share a few highlights with you, although I recommend that people interested in the book check a sample to make first, to ensure it works for them.
In New Orleans, Stella split in two. She didn’t notice it at first because she’d been two people her whole life: she was herself and she was Desiree. The twins, beautiful and rare, were never called the girls, only the twins, as if it were a formal title. She’d always thought of herself as part of this pair, but in New Orleans, she splintered into a new woman altogether after she got fired from Dixie Laundry.
The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.
Sometimes you could understand why Stella passed over. Who didn’t dream of leaving herself behind and starting over as someone new? But how could she kill the people who’d loved her? How could she leave the people who still longed for her, years later, and never even look back?
The ending is perhaps a bit rushed, considering the length and depth of the novel, but it suits it and I enjoyed it. If you want to know if it’s a happy ending… Well, this is not that kind of book, but I’ll say it isn’t unhappy.
I recommend this book to people who enjoy literary fiction and novels that deal with complex and diverse topics, with a focus on female protagonists and their lives, who don’t mind a somewhat demanding and challenging writing style, and who are eager to discover talented female writers. Great story, memorable characters, and a subject that will make readers think. What else could anybody want?
Thanks to the publisher and the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, remember to like, share, comment, click, and keep reading, and reviewing. And, always, keep smiling and stay safe!