Reflection

The most popular books can make me a bit weary before I read them. I don’t have the best track record, you see. Normal People, which dominated the first half of 2020 both in written word and on TV, left me depressed and confused. Last year, I dived into three critically acclaimed novels — Queenie, Tell Me Lies, and The Female Persuasion — that, while I didn’t dislike them, left me unfulfilled. Even when I read The Overstory, which I rated four flames, I didn’t see quite what the critics did. Then I have books like City of Girls, the kind that completely enrapture me but some have called boring and bland.

Why can’t I connect with literature that means so much to critics and fans alike? Is this a me problem or a them problem?

So I did wonder if Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half would live up to all the hype. This one will surely be on all of the “Best of 2020” lists and win many awards (if it hasn’t already) because it’s already received so much praise since releasing in June. Given that I’d read her debut novel, The Mothers, and completely loved it, I had confidence that this wasn’t just a book I’d obsess over. This would also be a novel that the U.S. — with its systemic racism and struggle with identity — desperately needed and needed ASAP.

Thankfully, Bennett washed away any and all doubts about it living up to the hype. And I can’t wait to see it on all those lists and with all of those nominations at the end of this year.

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“A body could be labeled but a person couldn’t, and the difference between the two depended on that muscle in your chest. That beloved organ, not sentient, not aware, not feeling, just pumping along, keeping you alive.” — The Vanishing Half

Twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes have been just as infamous in their hometown of Mallard, La. as the town itself — if you could call it that. In this small unincorporated area of the Deep South, its inhabitants value the lightness of one’s skin despite sharing Blackness and — contrarily — never being protected by their whiteness. However, some of the citizens, all of whom come from mixed ancestry, are so light that they can easily pass as white. One of the twins takes it one step further when she decides in her late teens to perpetually pass, putting both sisters’ identities at risk.

Desiree grew up always wanting more from the small-town life that was given to her and the narrow-mindedness and heartbreak that it bred. Stella, as Desiree’s opposite, was always quiet, enjoyed school, and preferred to keep her head down, which often led to her just following what Desiree told her to do. That’s why, at the age of 16, Stella listened when Desiree suggested they skip town without ever saying goodbye. This bold choice made the “lost twins,” as they became known as, infamous in Mallard, which made it even more shocking when Desiree returns nearly 15 years later with bruises and a child darker than anyone else in town.

By this point, it’s been a decade since Desiree has seen or heard from Stella, who decided not long after they left Mallard that passing for white would open entirely new possibilities. Stella could be anyone she wanted to be as a white woman so long as her white husband or anyone else never found out about her past and true identity, including the fact that she has a mixed twin sister. But as the decades go by for the twins without ever speaking or knowing where the other resides, their daughters’ lives will intersect, proving you can never truly escape your past and that it will always shape who you become.

“Lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift.” — The Vanishing Half

If it sounds like there’s a lot to unpack here, there is. Bennett’s story tackles themes of race, gender, sexuality, and class, and she does so all through the lens of identity — in terms of both how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others. And she makes many poignant statements along the way. For better or worse, all of these characteristics form our identity. Also for better or worse, we can never escape from where and whom we originate; our pasts will always stay with us because, even if we try to outrun them or grow, our pasts mold that identity that is ever-changing.

These themes seem deep and poetic, which they are, and Bennett writes with an urgency to illustrate their importance. She uses such interesting language and many literary techniques throughout this entire novel that are loaded with meaning and only intensify the points she’s trying to make.

And she does so from the get-go. Take this example from the second page that embodies Bennett’s great use of language and device:

“One morning, the twins crowded in front of their bathroom mirror, four identical girls fussing over their hair.”

Bennett’s clearly trying to point out how these girls grew up doing everything together but also that these entangled lives have varying identities. This foreshadows the pain Desiree feels after Stella leaves and the pain she’ll endure the rest of her life, always wondering where Stella is, why she left, how she’s doing, and most importantly who Stella is. Distance — both physical and emotional — for these sisters never breaks their bond that was cemented at birth even if they don’t understand who the other person becomes. It would have been easy for Bennett to explicitly make that part of the exposition. Instead, she uses objects and metaphor to beautifully address these themes.

Bennett also employs perspective to carry these motifs and the plot. The twins, who both tell their story in this novel, are dynamically different and so are their daughters from one another. Halfway through the book, Bennett starts to tell the story from the perspectives of Jude and Kennedy, Desiree’s and Stella’s respective daughters, who are now young women. Ayana Mathis from the New York Times claims this change in perspective causes the book to lose its “vitality,” but I’d argue it further demonstrates our complex relationships with identity and our pasts, and it echoes the themes of generational trauma.

“Sometimes who you were came down to the small things.” — The Vanishing Half

And while the perspective changes, Bennett’s tone doesn’t. The novel contains intense exposition written with a heavy tone, and the plot and language always feel like something is on the precipice. That breaking point will have catastrophic effects. I remember feeling this way while reading The Mothers as well. Now I know it’s a characteristic of Bennett’s writing style, and that kind of quality makes for great reading over and over again.

That type of intensity is also intrinsic in the types of stories Bennett imagines and thankfully tells. The Vanishing Half contains such an intriguing plot filled with heavy emotion. As a white woman, I cannot relate to the questions of identity that a Black woman would face, especially the feeling of not being light enough for one circle but too dark for another. I’m ashamed that I was unaware of the great and numerous literature about passing, which I discovered upon researching this novel. But I did feel an intense sympathy for the characters from start to finish. Even with Stella, who was very much painted as a fraud and a liar and as disloyal, you can’t help but feel for a woman who was born into injustice by simply being Black and wanting a taste of the freedom white people enjoy every day.

There’s not much in this novel that will make you smile or happy, which was the case with Bennett’s debut novel too. What will make you delighted is knowing that talented writers like Bennett outdo themselves from one book to the next and that critics love her work just as much as literary fans.

“People thought that being one of a kind made you special. No, it just made you lonely. What was special was belonging to someone else.” — The Vanishing Half

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