Brit Bennett’s book The Vanishing Half is an achievement. She created a story that draws you in and lingers long after you finish. To say it is multilayered and thought-provoking would be an understatement.
If you were growing up Black in the American South in the '50s but could easily pass for White, would you do it? Could you leave your past behind and live free but imprisoned in a lie?
This is a twins story. Twin girls living with their hardworking mom; their Dad had been lynched before their eyes. Living in a strange southern town where the lighter your Black skin, the better you were treated. So not only did Desiree and Stella have to endure White on Black racism but Black on Black was prevalent as well. They’re twin sisters who are smart but trapped in poverty and prejudice.
This is a secrets and lies story. Leaving one life to adopt a whole new one. Keeping the most important thing about yourself from loved ones. The twins run away to New Orleans one day, intending on making their way and helping their mother. Before long Stella is working in an office, passing for White while Desiree meets a man. In time both of them run again, Stella with her White lover and Desiree away from her Black husband. Both twins have daughters: the White-passing Stella’s is White while Desiree’s daughter takes after her dad and is extremely dark. This matters very much in their world.
This is a story of runners and drifters and people who get planted in one place. Early Jones is a runner, an ex-con turned hunter of men, sort of like a bounty hunter. He’s a good man who had a terrible start at life. His parents had too many kids and just gave him away. He and Desiree cross paths again and again and their scenes, their story, is sweet. He’s the kind of character you fall for and pull for.
Desiree and Stella’s daughters are runners, too, each in her own way. Their intersecting stories are at first a bit fantastic but not completely unbelievable. Life can be stranger than fiction, we know that.
The Vanishing Half has so many levels. It’s about mothers and daughters. Lovers and the family you create. Identity. Determination. The freedom to choose to sacrifice and change your life.
The novel was unsatisfying in the end but I’m not knocking it. Just me wanting a happy ending I guess. I wasn’t expecting it to make me think so much. Is it cowardly to live a lie so bold? Or is it the bravest thing a person could do, the ultimate form of self-care? I can ask but I try not to judge.
I started listening to the audiobook, then switched to the book and went back and forth depending on what was convenient. It was good to start with the narrated version because it helped establish the character’s voices in my head. Narrator Shayna Small deserves praise for the way she handled all the distinct voices and kept the story moving along.
Either way you do it, I recommend giving The Vanishing Half a try. It was nominated for a National Book Award and deserves its spot on any list of important modern American fiction.