Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half leaves you with a crater-sized hole in your heart. You understand Desiree’s loss and yearning for her twin, and Stella’s violent separation from her racial background. It’s a heart wrenching historical fiction that shows the violence inflicted upon others and oneself during the 1950s to the 1990s.
The twins come from a town called Mallard that no one has heard of and seems to be the site of all the strongest racial arguments. Colourism is a clear issue here. Everyone is competing for who can be the whitest. They prevent their children from going out in the sun to long in case it browns their skin. No wonder the twins want to escape.
They end up in New Orleans just about getting by. But when Stella gets fired from her job, her sister encourages her to try for a job in a department store. A job that only a white woman would get. Desiree thought she could pass as one. And she did. She walked right in and got the job. Not long later, Stella vanished.
Stella couldn’t be with her twin because then she could not pass as white. Her identity would be blown and what she believes to be freedom would be removed.
The fact Stella can pass as white shows that the idea of race is a social construct. She states: “… maybe pretending to be white eventually made it so” and “All there was to being white was acting so”. Whilst Stella is granted all the privileges of a white person we watch her character grow more and more restless. She is pretending and act — none of this is natural. She has created a fiction. She pretends her mother is dead. She never had a twin. Her core identity is removed.
And eventually, she realised “… how lonely it could be living in a world not meant for you”. Stella wants to befriend her coloured neighbour, but the other women forbid it. Her morals are conflicted. And she is hiding a suffocating secret she wants someone to confide with
‘Passing’ holds such violent connotations. It is like killing oneself, passing from one life to another. Loitering in a body that is not yours. The novel displays carefully the destruction of the changing of race and culture has on an individual. Whilst there may be more social privileges to being white, your culture is what liberates you. It is where you feel most comfortable. Don’t try to be something your not. Fight for who you are.
Meanwhile, Desiree gets into an abusive marriage. And we follow a wonderful relationship blossoming between her and a previous lover. A lover she was forbidden from loving due to the darkness of his skin. As a character, Early Jones is probably the least controversial. He does not try to be anything he is not. He is kind and loving and will do anything for Desiree.
He was sent to find Desiree and her child, Jude, by her husband. But his love overrides and he pretends he doesn’t know where she is. We learn her husband remarries and has three boys. Early states: “Exactly what the world didn’t need, three boys growing up the be spiteful men”. It’s refreshing to see a male character who is a feminist, is caring but also retains his masculinity.
The novel also explores the issues of transition through Reese, Jude’s boyfriend who is undergoing gender reassignment.
The Vanishing Half covers a multitude of contemporary issues but all are done sophisticated and not shoved in your face. Each story is given equal time to unroll and be explored, and the pacing of this book takes a skilled writer. No character is perfect, their actions are unforgivable, but you still end up caring for them. The ending will leave you deflated but that’s real life — there is never a tight-knit happy ending. You have to find happiness out of the smaller conclusions.