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The Vanishing Half: by Brit Bennett

One sister’s choice triggers a ripple effect spanning four decades and three generations. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half examines race, identity and self-determination, as well as how those intertwine with familial ties that bind, however loose and strained they may be. The book begins and holds roots, even as locations and points of view shift, in the light-skinned Black community of Mallard, Louisiana. Escaping trauma, poverty and prejudicial sentiment, identical twins Desiree and Stella Vignes start anew in New Orleans, only for Stella to “become white” and abandon her older sister, who returns years later to regroup in the small town she fled. The narrative is densely packed, linking separate stories of the siblings and their offspring, whose meeting as strangers brings everyone’s lives to full circle as they comprehend an excavated connection one of the women stole from them for her own means.

Relationships and identities are molded and reshaped depending on how the women’s stashing away or disclosing secrets affects each other, bringing them nearer or dragging them apart. Bennett writes illuminating details and coincidences for the picking while piecing together the character’s interwoven lives. Desiree and Stella’s respective daughters mirror the opposite sibling’s personality. The twins’ mother, in her mentally deteriorating state, thinks Desiree is Stella, referencing how the former would pose as her younger sister for fun. Jude imagines hereditary Alzheimer’s making her aunt forget the past she hid from everyone she knew.

The two of them, grappling with how much blackness is in their blood, present incising studies into racism’s damaging effect. As the product of Desiree and the “darkest man she could find,” Jude faces ridicule and fear over her existence and doubt about her attributes, accomplishments and romantic desirability because she’s considered inferior and frightening as a Black woman. Stella is pitiable for her terror and isolation. She’s also easy to despise for perpetuating the anti-black prejudice she grew up around in Mallard, and for using it to ward off exposure as not fully white and excuse her self-hate for her ethnic background.

The novel is soberingly relevant, especially in light of 2020’s racial and cultural tension. In its musings over the assassination of a civil rights leader, desegregation, a pandemic and gender identity, the novel almost feels as if Bennett sought to remind readers of how, even with some change, other things still demand work to fix.

The Vanishing Half can feel like a long read in part because of page count and how much time passes within the story, but also since, outside of some incendiary language and expressed opinions, the prose is demure rather than showy. Probing, to-the-point passages stand out all the more, like Desiree and Stella’s lives “splitting as evenly as their shared egg” or the latter’s daughter Kennedy catching one of her mother’s cover-ups and asking, “Why don’t you want me to know you?” The moment Jude is shocked to see Stella at a party reads as rather clunky and isn’t properly realized until the book revisits the moment. While the encompassing narrative isn’t terribly uneven, some protagonists feel less explored than others. Despite occasionally weak literary execution, however, Bennett delivers an insightful, pained and loving family legacy tied together by a secret that so greatly alters the characters’ identity.

Summary
The novel is soberingly relevant, especially in light of 2020’s racial and cultural tension.
65 %
Generational Mystery

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