ShortBookandScribes #BookReview – The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Today I’m reviewing The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett which is such a brilliant read. My thanks to Millie Seaward from Dialogue Books for sending me a beautiful finished and very shiny copy of the book for review purposes. It’s available now in ebook and from 11th June in hardcover.
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.
The Vanishing Half is a book with a fascinating concept that couldn’t be more relevant at the current time. It’s also a fantastic, complex and thought-provoking read. It has so many layers to it that I hardly know where to start to review it.
Desiree and Stella are identical twins. They’re black but their skin is so light that they can pass for white, and they live in a village in America in the 1950s which prides themselves on this fact, that their whole community can pass for being white. This in itself brings about so many mixed feelings for me. When the girls escape their small town life they go on completely different journeys, and later their own daughters’ lives diverge still further.
I found Stella the most intriguing of the twins. She is the one who ‘passes over’ into living as a white woman, keeping the truth from her husband and children. I can understand her desire to do this, after all, who would choose to be persecuted over the colour of their skin if they can choose another way, but at the same time I felt dismayed at the fact that she felt this was the right thing to do, with the loss of her heritage and her past life, her denial, and also her ensuing behaviour.
Jude was my favourite character of all. She is Desiree’s daughter and I just found her to be the kindest, most measured of everyone, and her story so captivating and so involving. I was always pleased when the story came back round to her, but I enjoyed reading from all the viewpoints.
The Vanishing Half covers a period of 30-40 years up to the late 1980s and the author does a fantastic job at depicting the attitudes of the times. Her writing is wonderful, evocative and empathetic, filling me with delight and sadness in equal measures.
There are some hard-hitting scenes in this book. It really made me think and for that I’m very grateful. It’s a very character-driven book about women – mothers, daughters and sisters, tackling some difficult issues, race actually only being one of them. We follow a family over a fixed period of time, witnessing the impact of their decisions and the ones imposed upon them. It’s a triumphant novel and I loved it.
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. Her work is featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel. She is one of the National Book Foundation’s 2016 5 Under 35 honorees.