The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett’s novel is more than its dustjacket suggests. It is probing, profound, and provocative, and not only about the subject of passing.
The dust jacket details the basic premise of Brit Bennett’s novel, The Vanishing Half. Bennett tells the story of twins, two light-skinned Louisiana girls whose lives significantly diverge. One remains Black, living for decades in the same small community where the twins were raised. The other chooses to pass as white, going to Boston, marrying a white man, moving to Southern California, and never revealing her heritage. Stella never communicates with her sister Desiree either, so Desiree has no knowledge of the road her sister has taken. When I began reading The Vanishing Half, I assumed the title reflected what the dust jacket reported. Stella would be the vanishing half.
But Bennet’s novel is far more complex than that. It actually is filled with vanishing halves, with a variety of men and women who hide secret selves, who reinvent themselves, who bury their pasts. For example, one of her minor characters, Barry, becomes Bianca, a drag queen, two Saturday nights a month. Thinking about the change, Bianca observes: “She had her role to play, and Barry had his. You could live a life that way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.” That is the case for so many of Bennett’s imagined people. They just need to remember who is in charge of their role-playing, and they must constantly displace the vanishing half. Stella, for obvious reasons, has the most trouble with this conundrum. She can never tell her husband the truth of her heritage and she lives in constant fear that he will guess. “She could tell the truth, she thought, but there was no single truth anymore. She’d lived a life split between two women—each real, each a lie.”
Equally split are the twin’s daughters. Desiree married a dark-skinned Black man, and their daughter inherited her father’s blue-black skin tones. In Mallard, Louisiana, she is the darkest child in school. Stella’s daughter, in contrast, is very blond. The cousins’ personalities are very different, too. Jude, Desiree’s daughter, is introverted and serious about her studies, studies that take her to southern California and eventually to medical school. Kennedy, Stella’s daughter, is frivolous. She drops out of college to pursue an acting career, one where she can vanish into a new character every time she gets a new role. “She was always inventing her life.”
The second half of The Vanishing Half brings Jude and Kennedy to the forefront of their mothers’ stories. Bennett designed the novel so that one twin or one of their daughters is the focus of each of six parts. Thus, the daughters can convey their mother’s stories, as they understand those stories, in both indirect and direct ways. Their understanding, of course, depends on how much their mothers reveal. I would love to reveal more of those stories here, but that would ruin the book for Bookin’ readers. Suffice to say that The Vanishing Half is an astonishing read, as the multifaceted vanishing halves come and go throughout the novel’s progress.
It’s one of those books you think about and revisit long after you finish turning the pages. Does each of us have a vanishing half? Perhaps so, though perhaps not as dramatically diametric as the Vignes sisters and their daughters, their mothers, their lovers, their friends. How, indeed, does one’s past inform one’s present? Is identity a constant? Or is it fluid, pliable, ever-changing? Who is each one of us, really? Can we ever know? So many questions, this probing and profound and provocative novel asks. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Britt Bennett: The Mothers
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