Title: The Vanishing Half
Author: Brit Bennett
Describe the book in one word: Unique
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Publisher: Little, Brown / Dialogue Books
Release date: 11th June 2020 (Get it or regret 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’ storylines 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.
I almost do not know where to begin with this review. The Vanishing Half is not like anything I have read before, which is why I have described it as unique. It is not just the concept of the book; it is the number of important topics discussed during the book. What is more, it is not just the sheer range of topics covered, it is the way Bennett weaves everything together, to create an eloquent portrayal of a life – or rather two lives. It is a masterpiece.
The book centres on identical twins Desiree and Stella Vignes. To me, it starts with a question. One that is particularly poignant today; how do you explain senseless, racist murder to young children? How do you explain why that happens? In some respects, it is a timely question to be asking, but it’s also sad that we are still asking this question – the book is set in the 1950’s after all.
Initially I was drawn to the book because it sounded so different to anything I have read, and I love that fact it is about siblings – twin sisters no less! I cannot think of another book that I have read that has focused so much on the bond between siblings. Particularly as the twins are destined to go off in different directions, even though they started off as one.
Stella and Desiree reside in a small American town called Mallard. While it might sound like any other small American town, it is unique in the fact that everyone there is black but has light skin. The community was founded on the basis that people should have a place where they can stick together, feel welcome, and be safe.
The characters within the book are hugely important and I love the way the different parts of the narrative are written from different perspectives. Desiree, Stella, their mother Adele at times, and then their own children, Jude, and Kennedy. I love this approach because it fills in the blanks and it is so powerful. There is an expression that goes something like this: There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth.
To me it means we all have our own perspectives and we all miss details or focus on what is important to us. So, when stories are told from multiple perspectives, you get a more accurate picture of what is happening for each person involved. It is an incredibly powerful style in The Vanishing Half.
Given what is currently happening around the world, the book is very timely. In a way, it is eerily spooky because history has once again repeated. The narrative in this book, just like The Hate U Give mirrors real life because it is real life for many people. In fact, there are some exceptional quotes from The Vanishing Half that will stay with me for a long time.
The book explains what it means to be black, and what it means to be white. That might sound like an obvious statement, but is it? The term ‘white privilege’ gets thrown around, but what does it truly mean? Well, the book explains; it means being heard, being seen, being believed, being trusted – without question.
I found the book posed one question after another. Subtle though some were, they are all important. Like, how do you change your life without changing who you are, without changing your culture? Is it possible with societal change? Where is your safe place if the only place you have ever known stops being safe? What is progress? What does progress look like? The world does not change pace at the same time.
There are also many themes, so many themes to this book! It is intricate – like a beautiful tapestry. It is delicate in appearance, yet strong at the same time. Identity, gender, race, the sibling bond, love, loss – lost souls, abrupt endings, family beliefs (passed through generations), and new beginnings.
After I finished the book, perhaps a day or so later (because it is the kind of book you cannot stop thinking about), I started thinking about the grief element. I started to think it was a brief part of the book, but on reflection, the whole book is about grief.
The Vanishing Half will be one of my favourite books of 2020 – there is no doubt in my mind. But I do not know if this review has done it justice because I have found it so hard to put my words together (even though I put words together as my job).
Have you read The Vanishing Half? I would love to know what you think of it.