The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett 2020
Widely hailed as one of the Ten Best Books of 2020 by the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Literary Hub, Bennett’s second novel is a tense and gripping story of family, race, and fate.
Desiree and Stella are identical African-American twins born in poverty in Mallard, a small town in racially segregated rural Louisiana in the latter half of the 20th C. Mallard is a unique town which has over time become the home for light-skinned Blacks living in an alternative universe only a few hours from New Orleans. When the girls reach late adolescence, they run away from Mallard and make new lives in New Orleans working at menial jobs and enjoying their independence. One day, Stella walks into a museum on the ‘whites only’ day and passes. Some time later she applies for a secretarial job and because the employer thinks she’s white, she gets the job. Not long after that she completely abandons her Black life and sister, marrying her employer, moving to LA, and passing year after year as a well-off, suburban L.A. mother and wife. Desiree is devastated by the sudden and unexplained disappearance of her sister but also moves on to D.C., marrying, and having a child. This child, Jude, a very dark Black girl and Stella’s child, Kennedy, a very blonde White girl eventually cross paths, and this collision has long-term and unpredictable consequences for both families.
This is a fine book, an unsettling book, and one which provokes questions about what race means in the US. Stella’s passing as White and her sister’s identifying and identified as Black results in lives that are so different that it’s impossible to conceive of their common origin. The social conception of race determines the horizons and potentials of their lives in a way that fiction can, perhaps, best portray. The core question for Bennett is how do you determine the narrative of your life. Is it socially imposed? Can you escape the fate that birth has intended for you? How can you, your family, and society cope with these efforts of self-definition.
Bennett’s book is full of characters who try to escape the fate that their families and society have determined for them. Stella changes from Black to White; Jude changes from a small town girl with no prospects to a medical student in a big city; Kennedy changes from the suburban, wealthy teen to an actor and a world traveler; Reese changes from a woman to a man; Barry changes from a man to a drag queen. All of these choices/changes raise questions about race, gender, career, friends, family and the limits to choice that are imposed by our society.
It’s a book that has stayed with me for days after I finished it. It is a book worth reading.