The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This incredible, emotional and extremely powerful novel will stay with me long after I’ve read it.

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’ story lines 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.

This is not just a story about twins. This is a story about different generations, races and identities. It’s a story about family and history, community and experiences and so much more. I felt dazed after finishing it and I wanted to go back and read it all over again. I honestly feel like this is one of those books where every time you read it again you’ll find something new within the story to appreciate and discover. It’s absolutely fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking and often eye-opening.

Each character is a beautifully complex blend of emotion and human decision. They all add something so wonderful to the story and each is focused on throughout the novel at some point. To start with the twins, the heart of this story, each twin is so clearly their own person and yet seem to be one person too. Desiree, the more fidgety and wild twin, also ends up seeming decisive, secure and confident in her love and emotions. Stella, the quiet and serious twin, ends up becoming stressed and exposed. They are both multi-layered and complex and I just absolutely loved it. The discussions of race that surround each twin is illuminating, the idea of the town of Mallard in itself a complicated creation that investigates the depths of human thought. There is never just one level in this novel, there are always deeper levels to be thought about and investigated.

As the story moves on to include the daughters of Desiree and Stella, despite time moving, on the challenges and barriers each daughter faces always seem to come back to identity. Both Kennedy and Jude were beautiful additions to the novel, taking the identities of their mothers even further and yet also showing how the twins are always so connected. Each girl has elements and characteristics of both twins and every time a new connection appeared the story felt a bit more emotional and beautiful.

As well as the four girls, there are some other wonderful characters throughout this novel that cannot be ignored. Early Jones and Reese were two brilliant additions, highlighting how no one person is the same. I particularly liked how these two stretched the traditions of love to provide new heartwarming strands of love.

This novel is a story about humanity – it explores identities of race, gender, age and family on all kinds of levels and depths. And yet, it cannot be ignored that this is also a story about race. It explores the fascinating history of passing as white, the discrimination Black people faced and how love and race are connected. Finally, this is a story about how the past always affects the future and investigates why people wish to be something other than they are. The title alone is a fantastic reflection of this – seeing the girls become two instead of one is a journey that we all go on when reading this.

This is just one of those books you have to read. It will leave you feeling as though you’ve come out of a dream – I couldn’t put this book down at all but already feel as though I want to go back and read it again. I truly loved it and couldn’t recommend this enough.

The Vanishing Half
Brit Bennett
Dialogue Books, 2nd June 2020

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