REVIEW: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

In brief: Desiree and Stella are twins, but after they leave home at 16 everything separates. Desiree returns home with her black daughter; Stella marries a white man and passes for white. But when their daughters meet, the truth becomes complicated.

The good: Brilliantly written with memorable characters.

The not-so-good: This book has given me a book hangover.

Why I chose it: Sounded like something I would enjoy. Thank you to Hachette for the copy.

Year: 2020

Pages: 343

Publisher: Dialogue Books (Hachette)

Setting: America

Rating: 10 out of 10

I’ve been thinking about The Vanishing Half for days, ever since I finished the book. This is a novel that induces a hefty book hangover because it combines exactly what I want in a great read – memorable and flawed characters, history, a great storyline and lots of scenes to ponder over. I really didn’t want to leave the Vignes twins once the book finished, nor Desiree’s daughter Jude.

Stella and Desiree are identical twins growing up in a small southern town in America called Mallard. The community is black, with many lighter skinned individuals including the twins. Stella dreams of going to college, but after the death of the twins’ father by white men money is hard to come by and the twins must leave school to get a job. As Negroes, the white community deems them only good enough for menial jobs, like cleaning. The twins run away from home to New Orleans, and that’s where their lives start to diverge. Stella gets a job as a secretary, where all her colleagues think she is white. She then marries her boss after leaving Desiree in New Orleans and lives her life as a white woman in California. Desiree marries a black man, and after he hits her one time too many, she returns to Mallard with her daughter Jude. Jude is black and is taunted by her lighter skinned classmates. She gets a scholarship to university in California and meets Reese. Stella’s daughter Kennedy is the opposite of Jude – flighty, spoiled and not a great person. When Jude and Kennedy meet, Jude realises that she knows something Kennedy doesn’t – who her mother really is.

The characters in The Vanishing Half are memorable. The twins’ mother Adele is well meaning and old fashioned and as she develops Alzheimer’s she cracks a few smiles with her gaffes. Desiree is much more straightforward than Stella, who discovers that living her life as a lie creates constant worry and fear of being found out. Stella’s reaction to a black family moving into their white neighbourhood is dramatic, but corresponds with her deepest fear. Stella also comes across as weaker than Desiree in that she accepts her husband’s decisions, even when she disagrees with them, to keep the peace. When she gains some independence, it’s refreshing to see her doing the things she has always wanted to do. Stella also comes across as cold and dismissive, particularly to her daughter Kennedy, but I felt that she feared her secret would be unravelled leaving her with nothing. Desiree’s life is simpler, but not easier. She finds love, but has to give up the career she enjoyed (when she tries to get a job locally, she’s laughed out of the office for being black). Jude has some of the opportunities she doesn’t, but Jude is continually subjected to racism because of her skin colour. Kennedy experiences nothing of this, thinking herself white and projects her privilege. Kennedy is much more unlikeable, treating everyone as her servant and lashing out when she is hurt. She lacks ambition and drive, a complete opposite to Jude who works multiple jobs while studying.

The Vanishing Half delves into race, class, secrets, gender, sexuality and relationships brilliantly, exploring the prevailing attitudes across America from the late 1950s to the 1980s. It describes how the characters are affected by their colour and how others choose to hide parts of themselves to be accepted by a white, heterosexual society who somehow determine what is ‘right’. It shows just how casual and everyday the racism is while telling a story that is gripping. Definitely thought provoking and beautifully written.

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