Problems of racial and gender identity
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 20 July 2020
The first three quarters of the book are excellent. They tell of the lives of twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who were born in the fictional Louisiana town of Mallard, where the population of African-Americans were all light-skinned and looked down on dark skinned people.
This had not prevented whites from a neighbouring town from lynching their father for an imagined racial transgression.
In 1964 Desiree and Stella ran way to St Louis. But they soon went their separate ways. Stella, traumatized by having seen her father lynched, had decided to pass as white. She had taken a job in St Louis. Her employer, a wealthy white banker called Blake Sanders had taken a liking to her, and she to him; and when he was moved to Boston and asked her to go with him, she had agreed, and had simply walked out on Desiree without telling her where she had gone. There she married him and bore him a white daughter, Kennedy. Neither Blake nor Kennedy knew that she was not white. Later they moved to Los Angeles.
For years Stella had no contact with Desiree. She was always terrified that she would be found out, and avoided any contact with black people. The exception was her friendship for a while with Loretta Walker, a black woman who lived in the house opposite hers; but this ended when Kennedy, playing with Loretta’s daughter Cindy, made a racist comment to Cindy.
Desiree had gone to Washington D.C, and married a black man, Sam Winston, and bore him a black daughter, Jude. But Sam was violent towards Desiree, and she and Jude left him and returned to Mallard in 1968.
In 1982 Jude was living in Los Angeles with Reese Carter, a transgender man with whom, sharing his bed, she has an affaire of sorts, and with Barry, who performs as a drag queen twice a month. Reese and Barry, like Stella, were passing for something they were not.
One day, Jude thought she had seen Stella, the lookalike of her mother; and she also met Kennedy.
Kennedy had become a rebel, had dropped out school, and against her mother’s wishes, had taken up acting in a crummy play in a crummy theatre. Jude took a job as a dogsbody at the theatre in order to see more of her cousin and in the hope of meeting Stella. On the last night of the show she did meet Stella, and introduced herself to her as Desiree’s daughter. Stella froze, then walked away. Angrily, Jude told Kennedy that their mothers were twins, and that Stella had been lying to Kennedy all her life.
The secret was out: Stella knew she had been rumbled, and Kennedy knew the truth.
I found the remaining quarter of the book, dealing in part with the consequences of this situation, very confusing. Hence only three stars, when so much of the book deserves five.
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