About The Book
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.
We’re living in a time where in the midst of a global pandemic millions have felt compelled to take to the streets to protest after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer. The conversation around racism is, quite rightly, constant and racism and being anti-racist is something I’m educating myself on. I read about The Vanishing Half a little while ago and thought it sounded like something I’d like, I had birthday vouchers burning a hole in my pocket so I pre-ordered it. Often I pre-order or buy books and ooh and ahh over them then put them on my bookshelf and there they sit, sometimes for years. But the publication of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett coincided with the above events, and I didn’t want to just admire the beautiful gold foiling on the cover and pop it on my shelf. I wanted to walk the walk and talk the talk. So I read it. And here’s what I thought.
How do I describe The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett? Powerful? Beautiful? Compelling? All of the above? I’m not even sure how to write a review to do it justice to be honest. It’s one of my books of the year, I had to slow myself down when reading it because it is a book to savour and I was unable to pick up another book for a good few days afterwards.
This is a multi narrative book about family, it spans decades and is right up my street. This book features twins, Desiree and Stella who are brought up in a small town named Mallard. So small that it isn’t even featured on a map it is a southern black community where the inhabitants are pale skinned. So pale skinned in some cases that they are able to pass as white.
The twins are brought up by their mother after their father is killed. Stella is bright and quiet whilst Desiree is more confident, and when they are forced to leave school to earn money they end up working as housemaids for a white family, leading to them running away at sixteen to start a new life in New Orleans. It is here where their relationship changes for good with the sisters separating, Desiree stays in the south, marries and has a black daughter, whilst Stella heads north and lives her life as a white woman.
This is a book which deals with complex issues such as race, prejudice, family, sisterhood and motherhood and does so in an elegant and beautiful way. The sister’s lives head in completely different directions with Stella finding herself able to live a life of privilege and wealth. She lives in an exclusive neighbourhood, doesn’t need to work and spends her mornings floating in her swimming pool, cocktail in hand. Desiree meanwhile returns to Mallard, works in the local diner and lives, once again with their mother. But whose life is the most fulfilled?
It is this question which steers the novel. Through the spectrum of Desiree, Stella and their children we are able to explore America over five decades. We are privy to the opportunities afforded to some and not to others, we watch as people are persecuted for the colour of their skin and our eyes are opened to those who choose to live their life in a different way. It is a wonderful examination of social history and prejudice led by some of the most engaging and well-drawn characters I have ever met.
It is an extraordinary piece of writing and has much to say about identity and self. Stella and Desiree are two halves of the same whole, who
“as they grew, they no longer seemed like one body split in two, but two bodies poured into one, each pulling her own way”
and their separation is a wrench, becoming a wound which doesn’t heal. Grief, loss and loneliness seeps from the pages, not only in the severed relationship between the Vignes twins, but also in the loneliness of a life half lived.
This is one of those books which begs to be talked about at length. It is a perfect book club book, one which will provoke discussion and I found it an overwhelming, powerful and satisfying read. It’s pretty excellent and comes highly recommended from me.