A provocative read on race, gender, and sisterhood in mid-century America, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half lives up to the hype, and impresses as a gripping vignette of the quintessential struggles faced by black women in the deep South. Bennett’s exploration of a vast array of polemics from the enduring feeling of in-authenticity of performing ‘whiteness’, the brutality of America’s racist past, to the struggles with self-identity may seem like a mountain to climb at first but Bennett pulls it off with a well-crafted plot that leaves you in ponderous suspense.
The story follows the lives of identical twin sisters, Stella and Desiree Vignes. Born and raised in a small, southern, black community, the sisters find themselves itching to experience the freedom of New Orleans. The pair run away together following the trauma of witnessing the lynching of their own Father, and consequently, rebel against the narrow-minded opinions of their hometown, Mallard (who take comfort in remaining a light-skinned community, “like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream”). While Desiree makes plans to flourish in New Orleans, Stella uses her white-passing features to flee her past self, her family and even her own race to pursue a new, secret life as an affluent white woman.
“Their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.”
Whilst this is a fictional storyline, the events and social norms are all too familiar to the experiences of black people in 1950s-1990s America. Throughout the novel, Bennett expertly narrates the slow ‘intertwining’ of races through the decades, and the indifference white Americans held towards racial harmony. The book centres on hard-hitting themes such as racism and colourism portraying not only the discrimination against black people, especially in the American south but also taking on wider issues of self-identity and self-worth.
As a twin myself, I am hesitant to talk about the sisters as two ‘halves’ of the same person. Nevertheless, I was admittedly drawn to Bennett’s use of twin sisters as an innovative tool to describe how a person could ‘vanish’ into a parallel universe in which they are a different race. As Stella became richer and climbed the social ladder, her decision to disguise as a Caucasian woman stood in stark contrast to Desiree’s unfortunate downfall back to their hometown, Mallard. Thus Bennett presented white privilege as an indisputable fact, heart-breaking for Desiree’s stunted aspirations due to the colour of her skin.
The book is complex and rich in its character development, allowing us to experience not only the harsh reality of Desiree as a black woman in the 1950s American South, but also confront Stella’s ongoing erosion of self as she continues to perform ‘whiteness’. Indeed, the twin’s daughters, Kennedy and Jude, moulded by their mothers yet still akin to their aunties, offered new perspectives on race later on in the 20th century. At this point in the novel, Bennett skilfully branches out and tackles subjects such as colourism, grief, and LGBTQ+, opening the story to develop a plethora of contemporary relatability.
I completely absorbed The Vanishing Half and my yearning for the twins to reunite gripped me with anxious anticipation throughout. With a fluid rhythm, Bennett intricately weaves together the storyline of the twins with a beautiful reminder of the strength of family and womanhood. In sum, The Vanishing Half is the first must-read of 2021.
Order your own copy of The Vanishing Half here.