Book of the week: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet.
About the book:
From The New York Times – bestselling author of “The Mothers”, a stunning new novel about twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds, one black, and one white. The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect? Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins. As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate, and wise.
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.
“The Mothers” is her first novel.
MY 2 CENTS:
This multi-generational saga explores a complex tangle of familial bonds, racism, hope, and a future that clings to its past.
Internalized racism, deeply buried secrets, and the complicated gender and racial upheavals of the 1960s-1980s saturate the novel. These tensions build to the inevitable moment when Stella’s carefully constructed house of cards begins to collapse: “At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”
While shifting points of view and alternating timelines can become confusing, Bennett skillfully carries readers through three decades and seven narrators, and she gives each character a distinctive voice and motivation. The Vanishing Half handles subjects such as post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence, grief, and blatant colorism, exploring them within the context of complicated and messy family and romantic relationships. Bennett exposes the myriad ways people can hurt those they love best or heal generational trauma.
There were many ways to be alienated from someone, few to actually belong.
The twins’ skin is light enough that Stella decides to “pass” as white and disappears from Desiree’s life in the late 1960s when they are in their early 20s. The story then moves back and forth in time and from the different characters’ perspectives. Bennett’s writing is lovely, making the read smooth and engaging. The structure of the story is original. And the story and characters kept me interested and curious from beginning to end.
This story completely captured me from the very first page, because it exists in the spaces between characters more than in the characters themselves; it felt so sweeping and had a lot of cultural nuances, not just with race, but with colorism with the Black community and gender identity. An exploration of identity contingent on race, sexual identity, and class, Bennett asks us, how much of our future can we change by burying our past?
The Vanishing Half,as I said, is about families, relationships, finding oneself, lies, and more. But mostly it’s about identity: the one that is marked upon us by society, but also the one that we create for ourselves. The author does a perfect job of reflecting this in her characters, each one so well developed and nuanced. She also does an amazing job of handling the complexities of colorism, which is usually brushed over or completely missing in a lot of books that deal with black identity. The book is wise, deep, engrossing, and compassionate. I was also very impressed as Brit incorporated multiple perspectives so effortlessly.
Abandoning your past and the emotional toll of living, the lie you choose here is a core. It was heartbreaking to read how choosing to pass takes a daily toll on Stella, and it shows what this is like for so many. The constant fear of being found out, the grief over what you’d lost, knowing that the people you love could never know who you really are while realizing that some ties can never be completely cut.
I also really enjoyed reading Stella’s perspective – why she decided to pass for white, how it impacted her relationships, her friendships. How she treats other black people and the ways she raises her daughter. This was a book about familial relationships: what it means to be a sister, to have half of your body live elsewhere. What does it mean to be a mother or a daughter. How do you protect those around you when you can’t always be with them? There are so many triggers: abuse, death, sexual assault, homophobia, and transphobia. So much I didn’t know would be woven so beautifully into this book.
The writing in this book is very strong and intelligent. Stellar writing, nimble handling of a wide-range of serious topics, characters you want to spend time sitting and thinking about, and a lingering yet swift pace that keeps you moving, yet allows space to sink into the narrative. Brit’s writing is precise, devastating, and explosive. You must take your chance to read it enter into its stellar mood in every sentence.