The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett

Published by Dialogue Books

The town of Mallard is a unique place. It’s inhabited solely by light-skinned African Americans, dedicated to retaining the café au lait colour they pride themselves on, and bewildered as to why anyone would take up with anyone darker than they are. It’s a community of like-minded snobbery, a collected superiority arising from insecurity in their own position in society. 

Twins Desiree and Stella Vignes, descendants of the town’s founder, which he established upon freedom from his white, slave-owning father, are both as constricted and trapped as each other, and upon the celebration of Founder’s Day, when they are 16, they slip away into the night never to be seen from again.

That is, until Desiree arrives back years later with a daughter, Jude, in tow. Eyebrows are raised at Jude’s colour; “Blueblack” says an early witness of Desiree’s return, “I never seen a child that black before”. Desiree’s act of defiance is to find the darkest Black man she could, while Stella goes the opposite direction, opting to ‘pass’ as white.

Their initial escape takes them to New Orleans, where they live together for a time before Stella vanishes again, this time to upper-middle-class white safety in Los Angeles. The twins’ bond is split, and each takes a road unlike the other, which converges unexpectedly with a chance meeting of their respective offspring.

The story of Stella and Desiree spans multiple decades, from the 50s to the 1990s, and also covers the next generation; studious Jude and her relationship with a Trans man and spoilt Kennedy, Stella’s golden-haired daughter and polar opposite to her first cousin. The twin trope expands to the cousins and demonstrates the opposite direction life can take, depending on critical decisions taken.

The use of twins is useful within this narrative, which author Britt Bennett utilises knowingly; it’s even mentioned that Desiree played the part of Viola in a high-school production of Twelfth Night, a play known for its central twin characters. The play’s gender-challenging and meta-theatre also ties in with the performative role that Stella ultimately takes on; no one in her new life has an inkling of her background, and while her tightly-controlled identity is unwavering, it’s also self-destructive.

The Vanishing Half is a triumph of story-telling, oscillating seamlessly between different points in time. Desiree’s return is neatly segued by rebounds to the sisters’ early days in New Orleans, from their first job in a laundry room, typing training and the finger-print analysis that Desiree ends up an expert in.

Told in six parts, each focusing mainly on separate themes but touching back in with those that came before them, it’s a subtle page-turner that relies more so on the reader’s curiosity as to what happens next, and why, than cliff-hangers. Bennett skilfully intertwines the sub-plots with the main narrative, bringing together a tightly constructed piece as a whole.

In addition to hefty subject matter as racial identity, colourism within the African-American community and the weight of the class system in the US, The Vanishing Half successfully examines family dynamics and childhood trauma.

The twins are witnesses to their father’s lynching at the hands of racist neighbours, jealous of his business accomplishment, a damaging ordeal that carries forth throughout their lives.

The erasure of Stella’s identity is a major factor within the story, and speaks volumes as to the role race plays in America. Even while presenting as white, Stella is on constant high alert. Even while ‘safe’ within her suburban community, her ingrained fight-or-flight mode is always on.

Desiree’s unexpected re-appearance in Mallard is compounded by local gossip and speculation, particularly after an encounter with an old acquaintance in a bar, after a failed job interview. Her identity is challenged as well; not to the same degree as her sister’s, but as a result of reigning in her more vivacious and stubborn characteristics for the sake of her dark-skinned daughter.

The Vanishing Half is an important read in this age of heightened discussions about race, but it’s also a highly accomplished and engaging novel to enjoy and be enlightened by, in its own right. Bennett’s use of descriptive language is mesmerising and her knack for immersive story-telling very compelling. This tale of two sisters is highly recommended reading for all those reasons, and more.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 15 07 20

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s