The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Published by Dialogue Books, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
When a book has been hugely hyped, venturing into it always comes with the fear it will disappoint, but The Vanishing Half more than exceeded my high expectations.
We follow three generations of women from the same family, and the disparate ways they choose to live their lives. At the book’s heart are Desiree and Stella, identical twins raised in Mallard, a rural community of Black folk, who aim to achieve lighter skin with each generation by shunning those with dark skin. The sisters flee to the city together at sixteen, but eventually drift apart; Desiree choosing to embrace her heritage as a Black woman, and Stella choosing to “pass” and live her life as white. With the timeline stretching from the 60s to the 90s, we also follow the sisters’ mother, Adele, and their respective daughters; Jude, who inherits her Black father’s dark skin, and Kennedy, who is raised to believe she is 100% white. Inevitably, the scattered family’s paths will eventually converge, and each of them will be forced to face up to the reality of who they are, and who they want to be.
The book is so well written, compelling in plot but rich in character development. With four main characters – and several major supporting characters in each of their narrative threads – it would have been easy for things to feel convoluted, or for certain POVs to fade in significance when compared to the others. Instead, Bennett makes each of her characters feel like a flawed, fleshed out, and believable human being. I hugely admired the way Bennett was able to explore the reasons behind each of the women’s life choices, showing the complexity of the socioeconomic factors at play, and without ever sitting in judgement.
The way she plays with parallels is also so clever, driving home the novel’s themes to great effect. Most obviously, we have the differences between cousins, Jude and Kennedy. They are part of the same generation of the same family, but their appearances mean they are perceived in entirely different ways by those around them. As a Black woman, Jude has to work hard with limited opportunities, and is still seen as lesser. As a white woman, Kennedy has been raised with a sense of entitlement, and is able to chase her dreams and find success despite flunking school.
In one of the best-handled threads, Jude falls for Reese, a trans man. Jude is the only one who knows his secret, everyone else believing him to be cis. His decision to literally transition from the life that was assigned to him to live the one he desires, and his right to protect that life by guarding his secret, lest he face rejection, is a perfect mirroring of Stella’s decision to keep her own past a secret. Just as we want Reese to find a way to be happy within his own skin, we sympathise with Stella’s desire to live a life free of segregation, restriction, and derision, simply because of the body she was born into. But while Reese is choosing to actively pursue his true identity, Stella is choosing to hide hers, and it’s here we begin to understand why – despite seeming to have it all – Stella is still chasing a sense of belonging.
Speaking of Reese, I thought his arc was handled beautifully. Bennett avoids all the anticipated tropes of queer misery, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read about a likable, three-dimensional queer character who was also allowed to be happy. Though I enjoyed every character’s story, the sections that followed Jude’s move to Los Angeles – where she falls for Reese and befriends a group of drag queens – was such a joy to read; an ode to the kinship felt by those pushed to the fringes of society; the importance of found family; and the resilience of those bold enough to challenge expectations and forge their own identities.
Objectively, I can see that the narrative relied on a few convenient coincidences, but given context, these felt earned. Not only is the story set across a long period of time, if feels reflective of the idea that you can’t escape your past; that no matter how hard you try to deny it, you will have to confront it eventually.
There would have been a very obvious way for this to wrap up, and while she does offer a sense of closure, I admired Bennett for once again having the conviction to refuse the tried and tested route. Instead, she opts for something far more bittersweet; for something far more real.
Nuanced, poignant, and utterly captivating, I loved every moment I spent with this book and its complicated characters; each of them navigating questions of race, family, identity, happiness, and agency. I’m so glad I finally picked this up.
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