The Vanishing Half is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking books I’ve read this year. Stella and Desiree Vignes are identical twins, born in Mallard, Louisiana. It is a town of light-skinned black people, so light-skinned that when the twins are teenagers, Stella chooses to pass as white. Desiree does not.
Opening sentence: The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort.
Twins and identity
The Vanishing Half follows the lives of the sisters and their daughters, Jude (Desiree’s daughter) and Kennedy (Stella’s daughter) over a time span from the 1950s to the 1990s, switching between characters and points in time. The tantalising plot sees some of their paths crossing, while the twins’ relationship remains estranged.
Themes of identity, race, family ties and belonging feature strongly throughout. Desiree is heartbroken when Stella abandons her, and her roots, to live her new life, while Stella lives in fear of her truth being revealed and sacrifices all her family ties for white privilege.
But what had changed about her? Nothing, really. She hadn’t adopted a disguise or even a new name. She’d walked in a colored girl and left a white one. She had become white only because everyone thought she was.
The story also looks at the psychology of each sister, explores racism and stereotypes, the idea of carving out a unique identity and how much is a person ever really free to do that.
The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.
What is so clever and emotive about this book is that it effortlessly weaves multiple character threads and narrative themes about belonging and identity, while throwing up some key points to muse over too:
People thought that being one of a kind made you special. No, it just made you lonely. What was special was belonging with someone else.
Is it based on real life?
That was one of the first questions that flitted through my mind while reading this captivating premise about Stella being raised as black but choosing to live as white. And the answer is, yes. Author Brit Bennett explains her inspiration in this article.
Although the narrative themes may seem heavy, The Vanishing Half is so lyrically written that it never feels that way. It is wholly evocative, thought-provoking and truly heart-capturing.
The complex, yet never confusing, narrative layers unravel at a satisfying pace, to the point that it’s almost impossible to stop reading until you turn that very last page; you need to find out what happens to Desiree and Stella. The Vanishing Half left me thinking long after I’d finished it.
- Published by Dialogue Books June 2020;
- 343 pages;
- My rating: