The release of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half early last month was met with great excitement, with the book quickly becoming a bestseller. Bennett’s sophomore novel is the story of the Vignes twins, Stella and Desiree, who grow up in an American town called Mallard during the 1960s.
There are two things to know about Mallard which become important as the book goes on. First, that though everyone in the town is African American. The community are light skinned after the twins’ forebear decided in 1848 that he wanted to create a “town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes”. An attitude which left its legacy in the form of a town-wide distrust of darker skinned people. As Desiree describes the residents to her boyfriend (and later husband) Sam, “You wouldn’t like Mallard… Because. They funny down there. Colorstruck. That’s why I left”. The second thing is that the town is so small, it doesn’t appear on any maps.
The Vignes twins leave Mallard in their late teens, striking out for New Orleans where they work (illegally, as they are underage) in a laundry. But, when Stella almost causes an accident with a mangle, the boss, who views her as too much of a liability has to let her go. Stella has to work, has to pay her way, but jobs are scarce. Then she sees an advertisement for a secretarial pool wanting girls with nice handwriting who can type. She thinks she doesn’t have a chance of getting the job, thinking they probably want someone white, but Desiree convinces her to try anyway. When the agency assumes that she is white, she doesn’t correct them. And so begins Stella’s life as a white woman– marrying the boss, moving to Los Angeles, denying that she ever came from Mallard at all.
Meanwhile, Desiree finds herself working for the FBI as a fingerprint analyst, it’s there she meets Sam. After a short and disastrous marriage, Desiree runs home to Mallard with her daughter Jude in tow. Her arrival home in Mallard opens the book; people recognise her and are shocked that she has with her a girl of eight or nine years old, whom they describe as “Blueblack”.
Stella and Desiree’s stories, their convergence and their re-connection, are paired with the lives of their daughters, Kennedy and Jude. All four women struggle with the concept of identity, specifically with the idea that identities can exist in duality. Many of the characters have a public self and a private self, or an identity that they are coming to terms with.
The book uses these characters to explore ideas of race, class, gender and sexuality in a nuanced and tender fashion, making The Vanishing Half a book that pulls on the heartstrings. The title itself seems to refer to the way that the ‘other self’ disappears when a person makes a decision about who they are.
In telling the story, Bennett weaves back and forth through time, alternately focusing on Desiree, Jude and Stella’s points of view, whilst displaying a masterful control over the narrative’s many threads. The Vanishing Half is perfectly paced, engaging, and is every bit as good as the hype will have led you to believe.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is available now through Dialogue Books / Hachette Australia.
Order your copy from Booktopia HERE.