The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Desiree and Stella Vignes are identical and inseparable. Only those who know them well will be able to tell them apart: Desiree, the first born, is more confident, fidgety, perhaps ever so slightly rebellious. Her twin Stella is quiet and calm, a dutiful, beautiful daughter. The girls grow up in the Southern town of Mallard. So small it cannot be found on any map, it houses a peculiar community. Mallard’s inhabitants are black, but light-skinned. Each generation tries to ensure the next one will be paler and paler. The community is tight-knit but hard to please and one day, at age sixteen, the Vignes’ twins have enough of the poverty and limitations Mallard promises. They run away without looking back and try to start a new life in New Orleans. But it quickly becomes apparent that for the first time ever, the twins don’t share one life anymore. Slowly they separate from each other, and one day Desiree returns home to find the apartment empty – Stella has run away yet again.
Years later, their lives could not be more different. Their families, class, communities, and even racial identities diverge as far as they could. While one sister has to return to Mallard with her black daughter, the other passes for white, her family knowing nothing of her past. But can twins that where once so close, ever be truly separate? The Vanishing Half tells a multi-generational tale of family and home, belonging and becoming, of identity and race. Spanning several decades, the reader gets to follow the lives and fate of the Vignes’ twins and how their storylines intersect, time and again.
The result of this intricate weaving of personal fates is a novel that is heart-rending and eye-opening. It does not stop at being an incredibly emotional family story, but it explores the concepts of race, gender and passing – and their absurdity – as well as the unbreakable link between our past choices and our future lives. Most of Bennett’s characters provide the opportunity to study identity, how it is forged and the ways in which we can shape our own fate, even though we will never quite escape the past. Brit Bennett incorporates all these topics elegantly into her narrative, creating a thought-provoking read. But even though I found the storyline fascinating and the writing flawless, something was missing for me. The pain and longing Bennett created during the first third of this book, slowly dissolved later on. It felt a bit as if she wanted to play it save. Hint at things, rather than state them plainly; cause discomfort but not distress. Some secrets remained uncovered, but without apparent need for it to be this way. But then again, the nuance with which she explore internalised racism and similar issues is truly remarkable. Perhaps that certain “something” I am missing is merely the result of having heard too many great things about this novel. And in the end it left me just slightly underwhelmed – this should not, however, take away from the fact that The Vanishing Half is a brilliant read!