If You Read One Book This Month, Make It The Vanishing Half
The timing of The Vanishing Half’s June publication feels almost fated. Protestors are filling the streets across the world, fighting for justice in the name of George Floyd and the deplorably long list of Black people (Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery) who’ve been murdered by the very forces that should be ensuring their protection. The question of racial identity and how it shapes our lives was top of mind for author Brit Bennett in her second novel, which begins in 1968 and travels back and forth through the latter half of the twentieth century, moving between California, Louisiana, and New York.
“The thing that I was interested in was the idea of race as both a construct — as something that can be performed — but also the idea of race as a very lived reality,” Bennett tells me over the phone, just days ago. “I didn’t want to default to intellectualizing race or turning race into a metaphor. For me, the thing that was perhaps most absurd about it was the idea that if race is something that is itself a fiction and something that can be performed or ‘faked,’ then what does it mean that race at the same time determines so much about our lives?”
Bennet’s sophomore novel, a follow up to her 2016 bestseller The Mothers, centers on identical light-skinned Black twins Desiree and Stella Vignes, who grew up in Mallard, a setting inspired by a conversation Bennett had with her mother about a Louisiana town where people intermarried to produce progressively lighter-skinned Black children.
The twins leave home as teens — Desiree marries a dark-skinned Black man and has a daughter named Jude before returning to Mallard more than a decade later; Stella disappears, severing ties with her sister and embarking on a new life, as a white-passing woman.
“I started to think about this place that was governed by skin color, what it would be like to live in a place like that, and also what it would be like to escape from a place like that,” Bennett says regarding the origin of her novel.
Stella and Desiree’s lives, which were once so intrinsically linked, diverge immeasurably as the former marries a white man who knows nothing of her past. Stella scrubs all traces of her family and her upbringing from the few stories she shares about her life before, rewriting the basics of her identity to add ease to the way in which she moves through the world — but nothing about it is easy.
“Something I’m constantly thinking about is the idea that you can share genetics with people and grow up in the same household and turn out to be completely different people,” Bennett says. “I have very close relationships with my sisters, so part of writing the book was imagining what are the choices that would lead Stella to not only disavow her race or her culture, but also her family and her sister who is the closest person to her in the world. I could never imagine deciding to never speak to my sisters again, so drawing on the closeness of those relationships was a way for me to kind of delve into this painful and fraught decision that Stella makes.”
The Vanishing Half tells a story of identity without prescription, but nonetheless provides a meditation on the nuance of race that feels important, now more than ever. It’s the kind of novel that demands to be read — a propulsive, heartfelt work that keeps its reader both glued to the page and chastened by the idea that soon the experience will come to an end. I started a half dozen other books after finishing The Vanishing Half, and I couldn’t finish any of them. It felt like the aftermath of a bad breakup — I was comparing the reading experience with every book I picked up, and none of them came close.
I think of myself as a fairly avid reader, and that nostalgic feeling of not being able to put a book down, like I’m poring over The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in a room filled with piles of Seventeen magazines and memorabilia for The O.C., is something that still feels so rare, especially in a time when focusing on anything other than the horrors of our current reality can be such a mental challenge. You can call The Vanishing Half an escape, but it’s a meaningful one.
The Vanishing Half is now available at booksellers nationwide.