Some novels are timeless—tied neither to an era nor a place. Others are timely—urgent for a moment, but not necessarily lasting. The Vanishing Half, a new novel by Brit Bennett (The Mothers), has the rare distinction of being both.
Identical twins Stella and Desiree Vignes grew up in Mallard, Louisiana, in the late 1930s. Mallard was founded by a freed slave named Alphonse Decuir in 1848 as “A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place.” Basically, it was a town built for light-skinned Black folks, who were shunned by both the white and darker-skinned Black communities.
At age 16, after a traumatic childhood that includes witnessing their father’s murder at the hands of white men, Stella and Desiree run away to New Orleans together. After a few years, the sisters’ paths diverge, with Stella setting off for California, where she decides to pass as white, marrying a white man and having a daughter, Kennedy, who has no idea her mother is anything but Caucasian. “At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it,” Stella muses. “But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.” Desiree, on the other hand, rebels against her hometown's colorism by marrying the darkest man she can find and has a very dark-skinned daughter, Jude. Her husband turns out to be an abuser, so Desiree and Jude eventually move back to Mallard, where Jude is ridiculed for the color of her skin.
Chronicling 40 years, the novel is told from the perspectives of Desiree, Stella, Jude and Kennedy, The Vanishing Half explores identities of all sorts, and how we grow into and change those identities. As Bennett writes, “The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.”
Though not entirely surprising, the twins’ daughters eventually cross paths, after Jude goes to college in California on an athletic scholarship. There, she bonds with a trans man named Reese and learns of a different kind of story about identity and authenticity. Kennedy is raised spoiled and ignorant, and has identity issues of her own. When Stella asks her why she can’t just be herself, Kennedy responds, “Maybe I don’t know who that is.”
At a time when questions of identity and racial tension are at the forefront of the national conversation, Bennett’s novel is an important meditation on the possibility of a brighter future after trauma. Though structured differently than her first novel, which was partially narrated by a judgmental chorus of women from the church in a small town (the titular "mothers"), both works tackle themes of secrets, loyalty and the lasting impact of the decisions we make when we’re young. It's particularly poignant to read The Vanishing Half as a white person in 2020. Though the majority of the novel is set between the 1930s and 1980s, it's shocking (though it shouldn't be) that so little has changed in terms of racial equality and discrimination. Each of the main characters is part of the same family, but their individual experiences are so distinct and thoroughly drawn, an important reminder that there is no universal Black experience.
If The Mothers was a promising debut, The Vanishing Half cements Bennett as one of the most exciting talents writing right now.