As the Black Lives Matter movement dominates the headlines, reminding us of the ongoing violence against the Black community in the United States and around the world, American author Brit Bennett invites a look inwards and across time. Bennett’s work has the strange duality of observing Black lives intimately from a distance – she charts characters over years in their most private moments, but leaves enough unknown to invite a reader’s interpretation and analysis.
Bennett’s 2016 debut, The Mothers, was narrated Greek chorus-style by a group of omniscient church women as teenage Nadia Turner fell pregnant by the pastor’s son. The novel moved through the years as this secret, and its consequences, threatened to tear apart a close, conservative community.
The Vanishing Half, Bennett’s second novel, is a sprawling family epic that spans half a century of deceit, betrayal and sacrifice. Against the timely backdrop of the civil rights movement, Bennett deftly navigates the contours of multiple lives, exploring privilege and colourism through the concept of “passing”: the ability to be perceived as a member of an identity group different from one’s own.
Beginning in the Jim Crow era and moving between the 1950s and 1980s, The Vanishing Half is the story of twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes. Their fictional small Louisiana town, Mallard, is populated by light-skinned Blacks – the result of generations of mixed-race marriage – who would “never be accepted as white, but refused to be treated like Negroes”. This lightness is a point of pride for the townsfolk, but the girls learn early, when their father is lynched by a gang of white men, that “even here, where nobody married dark, you were still colored and that meant that white men could kill you for refusing to die”. At age 16, Desiree and Stella run away together, but after a year Stella abruptly vanishes, leaving behind only a note for her sister. Bennett writes with evocative imagery about twinship, describing “their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg”.
The first half of the book focuses primarily on Desiree as she returns to Mallard 13 years later. We learn she has been in an abusive marriage, resulting in “blueblack” daughter Jude, and has unexpectedly reunited with her first, forbidden love, the dark-skinned bounty hunter Early Jones, who helps look for Stella. Though there’s a synchronised suspense between reader and character, it feels frustrating and uneven to hear only Desiree’s story for such a large portion of the novel, especially at a level of detail that sometimes seems unnecessary.
When the perspective finally shifts, we learn that Stella married her white boss, who believes Stella is also white; their daughter, Kennedy, is a college-dropout-turned-actress who has eyes “so blue they looked violet”. Stella’s decision to live as a white woman requires a complete divorce from her family, past and identity. When a Black family moves into her upscale Los Angeles neighbourhood, she feigns outrage like the rest of the community, but becomes secretly obsessed; she strikes up a clandestine friendship with the mother of the family, feeling a kinship unlike anything else she knows.
Stella’s life is steeped in privilege, yet there’s a tragedy in how she warps herself to fit this borrowed reality. As a child Kennedy says the N-word, mimicking what she’s heard her mother say; Stella is horrified and slaps the girl, but realises the mask she wears has become indistinguishable from reality. Bennett treads this line expertly: Stella is a nuanced character, neither sympathetic nor villainous, allowing the reader to both understand and condemn her choice. In her charade, Stella gains the world but loses herself.
Through their daughters, the sisters’ lives intersect once again in a series of events that relies too heavily on coincidence, requiring the reader to suspend their disbelief. Despite this, the novel is gripping as Bennett writes with care and control, showing the butterfly effect of each character’s decisions, however small.
The politics of passing are explored in The Vanishing Half not only through Stella’s story, but also through Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, a transgender man. Reese acts as a foil to Stella, raising pertinent ideas about identity, acceptance and privilege, even though their journeys, and the implications, are so different.
Reese’s purposeful transformation is self-actualising, and allows him to find a community where he belongs, but the threat of bigoted violence is never far. His gender affirmation is recounted joyfully in a rollicking road-trip scene, coalescing in the realisation that “the truth was that he’d always been Reese”.
Stella, on the other hand, “had become white only because everyone thought she was”. She enjoys the safety of whiteness, but feels a personal disquiet knowing that she has turned her back on her truth. The community to which she belongs makes her uneasy with its blatant racism, yet she feels stuck – damned one way or the other. Gender and race aren’t perfect comparison points, but Bennett’s clever writing creates this strange and surprisingly apt inverse mirror between the characters, even though they barely intersect.
There are moments in the novel that are strikingly relevant to today’s political landscape – watching a newscast of “devastated” looters during Martin Luther King protests, Stella’s well-meaning white husband wonders aloud, “I’ll never understand why they do that. Destroy their own neighborhoods.” Here, Bennett touches acutely on the perception of Black anger and grief by the non-Black population – it’s a damning indictment on the ignorance that still pervades even progressive circles decades later.
The Vanishing Half is urgent and topical, shining a spotlight on the vast spectrum of the Black experience and the lateral prejudices that can take place within both a community and a self. Bennett does not offer easy answers or neat endings, but through her multilayered characters she provides an insightful look into the insidious system that controls even seemingly autonomous choices, and the pervasive rot of white supremacy, eating away at everything.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
Dialogue, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 4, 2020 as "Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half".
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