Originally published: 11 June 2020
Author: Brit Bennett
Published by: Dialogue Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 343 pages
Reading dates: 5-9 June 2020
The fictional town of Mallard, in Louisiana was established in 1848 and is a town of light skinned African Americans. Identical twins Desiree and Stella Vignes are born there is 1938 and are described as “creamy skinned, hazel eyed” girls. Almost polar opposites in personality, Desiree is outgoing and headstrong, while Stella is clever and is almost dependant on her twin.
At the age of 16, they run away from home together to New Orleans and live together until the day Stella discovers she can “pass” as white. She gets a job as a secretary, ends up dating her boss and when he invites her to move with him, she abandons Desiree, becomes “white” and disappears.
Desiree misses her sister dreadfully but eventually marries Sam, a black man and they have a daughter, Jude, who is dark like her father and looks nothing like her mother. When Sam starts abusing Desiree, she takes her daughter and heads home to Mallard, 10 years after she first left. Things aren’t easy there for Jude – she is seen as the outsider and is bullied for being black and when she is old enough, she can’t wait to leave Mallard either.
Meanwhile, Stella lives as a white woman, married to her boss with a daughter of her own called Kennedy. Neither of them know Stella’s heritage. Stella passes effortlessly as white but is also terrified of what would happen if she was discovered.
Spanning a period from the 1950s to the 1990s, this book is just stunning. Bennett manages to weave a story that is mesmerising. The story effortlessly moves between each twin and also their daughters Jude and Kennedy and their inevitable meeting.
I loved the way it looked at racial issues from a different angle. Stella makes the decision to pass as white because she understands the privileges white people have – how much safer and easier life is for a white person. To do that, she has to cut herself off from her family and her past. When a black family move to her upmarket all-white neighbourhood, in a scene I found shocking, Stella is the first to speak out to say they shouldn’t be allowed to come.
The Vanishing Half is one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. Stella’s story is especially interesting. She chose the way her life would take but you never get the sense she belongs in it and doesn’t seem happy. The town of Mallard is also really interesting. The people who live there are protective of Mallard’s appearance. They marry within the community in order to maintain the lightness of their skin, yet still identify as negro.
I also really liked Jude. Growing up in Mallard wasn’t easy for her, her appearance being different from everyone else, including her own family. But she makes her own way in life, going to University, falling in love with Reese, a trans man and eventually training to become a doctor.
As well as handling racial issues with sensitivity, this is a great story. I love a book that spans the years and I also enjoy storytelling from multiple POVs and the writing is just brilliant. I have read so many good books this year but I already know this will be in my top 10 and I can’t wait to read The Mothers, Bennett’s first novel.
Many thanks for Millie at Dialogue Books for my finished copy.
About the author
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. Her work is featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.