The Vanishing Half – by Brit Bennett

As a New Year’s resolution, I had promised myself to read at least some piece of non-speculative fiction; looking for some realistic book that featured interesting themes and that sounded overall inspiring, this is one of the first titles I added to my TBR.

Title: The Vanishing Half

Author: Brit Bennett

Original Publisher: Riverhead Books

Publication Date: 2 June 2020

Genre: Historical Fiction

Pages: 343

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: Desiree and Stella are two identical twins born and raised in the fictional town of Mallard, Louisiana, a community entirely composed of light-skinned African-Americans. In 1954, at the age of sixteen, the two sisters run away to New Orleans; shortly afterwards, their lives take entirely different paths, to the point that they lose any trace of each other; Stella takes the chance to pass as a white woman, eventually marrying a rich man and living a comfortable suburban life; while Desiree ends up in an abusive relationship and later goes back to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter Jude.

Years later, Jude moves to Los Angeles through a scholarship at the University of California; she falls in love with a trans guy, Reese, and decides to get a job to help him save for surgery; while working as a part-time caterer in Beverly Hills, she stumbles upon a woman who looks identical to her mother, and she starts tracking down that lost branch of her family, befriending her lost cousin Kennedy, up to that point entirely unaware of her origins.

Analysis: The novel is told in third person, by a narrator that at times adopts an omniscent point of view, describing collective experiences independently from each protagonist’s personal knowledge and biases, while other times dives deep into the consciousness of its main characters, making us see the events through their eyes and convictions. The language subtly adapts to the speech patterns of each main character – the prose turning now more colloquial, now more formalistic to match each character’s personality, while indulging in a more lyrical tone when the narrator zooms out to a more detached perspective.

The story has a nonlinear narrative structure, moving back and forward in time for a more dramatic effect, building a sense of mystery around events that’ll only be uncovered later. The plot relies on a few unlikely coincidences – that I can somehow accept as necessary to tell an engaging story, although I wish that the author didn’t draw additional attention on their contrievedness (ok, yes, I know that stumbling upon each other entirely by chance in Los Angeles is extremely unlikely; actually I was trying my best to ignore it, lampshading it does not really help my suspension of disbelief).

The Vanishing Half is largely focused on the themes of racism and discrimination. The parallele lives of Desiree and Stella are a paradigmatic display of how race is a social construct first and foremost: the two women are, in fact, physically identical, but they are perceived much differently due to the circumstances of their lives, with all the consequences such perception implies. Passing for white allows Stella to live a more comfortable life, but also forces her to perpetually hide her identity, even becoming an enforcer of the most hideous prejudices in order to protect her secret. The novel also explores the uneasy theme of colourism, which is born as a reaction to racial oppression, but leads to further prejudices within an already discriminated minority – with darker individuals like Jude being disparged by their own communities.

While these subjects are treated with all the insightfulness and nuance they require, the novel somehow falters when it tries to add LGBTQIA+ themes to the equation. In a rather awkward move, the author tries to draw a parallel between Stella’s passing for white and Reese’s “””passing as a man””” – and I feel uncomfortable even just writing these words, since the former is hiding her real background in order to have access to social privilege, while the latter is not faking in any shape or form, instead he wants to be acknowledged as his real self. It’s not the first time I see the theme of gender identity clumsily thrown into a different discourse of colourism: the most notable example that comes to mind is Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, where the author builds a rather poetic parable on racial identity, just to spoil all her efforts with a horribly transphobic message at the very end.

The Vanishing Half is by far not as offensive – it’s just the comparison with racial identity that, deprived of a more articulate exploration, comes across as less spot on than the author probably believed. Other than that, Reese is a likable character and his story is told in a very sympathetic light. One could argue that he’s not all that fleshed out and a bit stereotyped, but honestly the same could be said about all secondary characters of this book, who are often built less as real people, and more as stand-ins for what they represent.

Conclusions & Recommendations: The Vanishing Half wasn’t perhaps the stellar masterpiece I was promised, however it was an enjoyable book, with heartfelt if a bit contrieved drama, and an insightful look on societal issues. If enjoy family sagas, are interested in racial dynamics, and you can put up with a less than excellent rendering of LGBTQIA+ themes, it is definitely worth reading.

Content Warning: Racism – Colourism – Sexual Assault – Domestic Abuse – Death of Parent – Dementia – Transphobia

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