The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett, Riverhead Books (2020)
Brit Bennett’s second fiction novel, The Vanishing Half, chronicles the lives of identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes between the 1940s and 1990s. Running away from their Louisiana home at age 16, the light-skinned black girls make new lives for themselves in New Orleans until Stella disappears to live a life passing as white. Desiree spends years looking for a sister who doesn’t want to be found until their own daughters’ lives intersect.
Bennett employs such compelling storytelling and character building, I could not put this book down. Jumping around in time, the novel examines the twins’ childhood in a small Louisiana town populated only by other light-skinned black residents (a result of generations of intermarrying in order to dilute their black skin). Even here, the girls had to witness the lynching of their father at the hands of white men. Bennett informs the narrative with the heavy yoke of being black in midcentury America (and to a smaller extent, what it meant to be transgender before there was common language for it). The book explores both the trials of living as a poor black woman in the south and those of a wealthy black woman living against the judgment of a predominantly white neighborhood.
It’s a novel-length examination of what happens when a person chooses to live as another race. In one scene, Stella’s adult daughter Kennedy is showing a house to prospective buyers and asks them to “Imagine your life here... Imagine who you could be.” Everyone has, at some point, slipped into the fantasy of imagining their life as something different, but this can be felt especially by the oppressed. The Vanishing Half plays out a racial passing scenario that lives only in the imaginations of many.
This book scrutinizes the prejudice even among light-skinned and dark-skinned members of the black community. After running away and losing Stella, Desiree develops a relationship with “the darkest man she could find” and has a daughter, Jude, who turns out to be just as "blueblack” as he is. Eventually, Desiree is forced to flee from the abusive relationship and return to Louisiana where Jude is bullied ruthlessly for being dark in a town of light-skinned residents.
As a triplet, I was struck also by how Bennett got a lot of things right about being a multiple. About being a twin, she says it is as if “living with another version of yourself.” There’s a feeling of a vast emptiness when the other sibling is gone. This idea of duality takes on other meanings and has a strong hold in the book. Bennett writes “You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.” She explores the ways in which people split their lives—as a black woman, a transgender man, an actor, or merely someone showing others only what they want them to see.
The Vanishing Half examines grief in many forms. Bennett talks of the aftermath of losing someone that hits in waves: “Not a flood, but water lapping steadily at her ankles. You could drown in two inches of water.” Ultimately, the book is about family and memory—about choosing what to remember and what to forget, and about the things you have no control over.