"The Vanishing Half": Review & Analysis
The Vanishing Half is the second novel by Brit Bennett after her debut, The Mothers. The novel revolves around two twins in a Black community in Mallard – a small Louisiana town which can’t even be found on the map. It’s a town with light-skin Black people "who would never be accepted as white" by white people. The lives of the twins, Desiree and Stella, change when they both run away from their close-minded town, only to diverge years later after Stella decides to pass as a white woman to have a better life elsewhere. Bennett’s novel poignantly explores what happens when the next generation of these women stumbles upon each other in LA one fateful evening. Spanning from the 1950s to 90s, the novel offers a glimpse into an estranged family – one that is wrecked by abandonment, lies and trauma in a racial and post-segregation American landscape.
Desiree’s and Stella’s childhoods were marked by a traumatic event, something no kid should ever experience: witnessing their father’s lynching by a group of white men right at their doorstep. This horrifying event that starts off the book is one that would haunt them for their entire adult lives. The twins always have been inseparable, but that is until the quiet one, Stella, decides that being white would be the greatest privilege she could muster out of her light-skinned identity. In a simple sense, “Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find."
What follows is a self-inflicted journey of loneliness, paranoia and pain as a racially-passed woman for Stella, and an equally lonely but humble existence for Desiree, who returns to Mallard with her daughter, Jude. The twins, worlds apart, would still miss each other so much so that people they’ve met throughout their lives remind them of each other, even their own daughters.
Jude and Kennedy are different in all the ways you can imagine – one Black, the other White, one, ambitious and hard-working, trying to escape her hometown and the other, an aspiring stage performer in the throes of an identity crisis. Bennett’s poetic description of the daughters lies in the color “blue”, like how Jude is “blueblack” and that Kennedy’s eyes are so “blue that they’re violet”, as if blue symbolizes intensity and this is yet another similarity these two have apart from their lineage. Of course, this might be a stretch, but Bennett’s usage of color – not just in terms of race and color – opens the door to different interpretations.
Colorism, as Lupita Nyong’o famously said, is the daughter of racism and it usually exists in the same racial and ethnic communities. The Vanishing Half unpacks colorism through two juxtaposing characters – Jude and Stella. In Mallard, "nobody married dark", but Desiree who has always been bothered by her color-obsessed town, marries a dark-skinned Black man and out came Jude, who has been ostracized all her childhood due to her dark skin tone. She faces the remnants of colorism in her everyday life. On the other hand, Stella runs away from her past, changing her racial identity because she can – her light-skin privilege allows her to make that choice, no matter how conflicted she may have felt at times. But the most heartbreaking revelation – as Bennett implies – is that even having light skin did not save the twins’ father from getting lynched by racist white men, and from ultimately becoming a victim of institutionalized racism in America.
Bennett’s writing excellently conveys the inner and outer turmoil of the twins and their daughters throughout the years. She utilizes a non-chronological technique in her writing, for instance, a chapter focuses on 1986, but would end with an anecdote from 10 years later. These time-jumps can be a little confusing, but she ties it all up neatly at the end of the chapter, creating more dynamic characters with immense amount of development and awareness. Until the last page,The Vanishing Half is a delicate yet fierce exploration of race and identity, amplified by Bennett’s beautiful prose. It is not only a great contemporary book, but also a timely and important read for anti-racist learning.