The Vanishing Half is a magnetic slow-burner of a novel. A must-read!
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 28 August 2020
The beginning of the book introduces Mallard, a small town just 2 hours outside New Orleans. But it’s a very unique town. The community, although black, prides themselves on having light skin. They are too dark to be white, but to light to be black. Mallard was built to be the place in-between. And each generation gets lighter. One day, the twins decide to run away from this claustrophobic town. Split into six parts, the story begins in 1968 when one twin returns and captivatingly navigates through the years.
From the introduction of the town and the characters, Brit Bennett establishes the turmoil that comes with a conflicted sense of identity. In the book, dark skin is undesirable, even detestable. And there’s a very similar narrative in the world we live in today. It’s an intergenerational issue that continues to poison humanity. Growing up in an environment that worships light skin has damaging effects on those who don’t fit the mould. I love the questions this book forces the reader to ask, as it evaluates what really makes a person’s identity.
That concept is perfectly presented in the judgements and insecurities of the characters. It’s evident in Desiree and Stella, who make their choices based on the traumatic events of their childhood as well as society’s polluted view of dark skin. Desiree, the rebellious and outspoken twin, marries a dark-skinned man and continues to identify as a black woman. Whereas Stella, who is fascinated with the advantages that comes with lighter skin, marries a white man, and choses to live a lie by pretending to be white. But their choices have far-reaching effects on their children.
Kennedy, Stella’s daughter, grows up in a world of privilege with blonde hair and violet eyes. While Jude, Desiree’s daughter, is alienated in a racist society with skin darker than many have ever seen. Their lives run on completely different tracks, yet Bennett weaves them together so exquisitely. As a result, the novel grows more and more compelling with each chapter.
Each character in this novel is constructed in such a mesmerising way. As the plot constantly moves forward, the characters move effortlessly with it. They’re three-dimensional, with flaws and mistakes that make it easy to attach to them. As a reader, you get to know the protagonists from childhood and observe their growth throughout the years. With an immovable foundation set, the lives of the women are woven together in a mosaic of events. In my opinion, the journey and the back-and-forth is the most enjoyable part of the reading experience. This book is simply a spectacular story that has been beautifully told.
A new layer is added to every chapter of the book with a tantalisingly slow suspense. Whether it’s another secret Stella has buried, or another challenge Desiree has pushed out of her way. That pattern is also echoed in Kennedy and Jude as they try to navigate adulthood. Like their mothers, they too question their history and identity, albeit in very different ways.
The perspectives from different characters really helps the progress of the narrative throwing away the entertainment. The novel could easily rely on dialogue to maintain a flow, but it’s the hopes, thoughts, and anxieties of the characters that holds the action and excitement. It doesn’t drag for a single moment. And with Bennett’s additive voice, it’s a really hard book to put down.
In reality, the summary of this book doesn’t provide even a quarter of the complex journey within its pages. It explores powerful themes such as race, class, freedom and family. And with an undeniable depth, The Vanishing Half is both thought-provoking, inspiring and heart-breaking. I’m not sure whether the title refers to losing a twin, or losing yourself. The characters seem to experience both. Either way, it’s a truly enchanting and insightful read that all should experience.
Anika | chaptersofmay.com