Thursday 8 October 2020

The Vanishing Half | Brit Bennett #USfiction


I suspect, like me, many of you have heard about the basic premise of this story. The book seems to be everywhere (which is partly why it was selected as our October book club book). It features a fictional town inhabited by African Americans who have light skin, 'lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift.' People who felt like they could not, and did not, belong in a white world or a black one. Mallard was a town for those 'who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.'

The story is about identical twins, Desiree and Stella, who grow up in this town. One marries a dark man and has a very dark baby, horrifying the inhabitants of Mallard, and the other decides to 'pass' as white and disappears from all their lives.

However, this is not the only vanishing or 'passing' or pretending to be someone else, that is considered by Bennett in The Vanishing Half.

The idea of 'passing' is examined alongside gender identity, transgender, drag queens and the games that many twins play, pretending to be the other to confuse their family and friends. Bennett also makes one her characters an actor to discuss what is real, what is make believe and our ability to inhabit a character to tell a story. Another character is a 'hunter' who helps to find people running from the law, bad debt and bad people. He helps find those who want to disappear. He understands disguises and subterfuge and the lies people tell when they create a new life. Mixed in with all of this is the common, every day desire we all feel at different points in our lives, to start over - the end of a bad marriage, the death of a partner, to escape childhood friends etc. 

Do we create our own identity? Or do we spend our lives deconstructing other people's ideas of who we are (or should be)?

It was fascinating stuff.

Naturally, the contrast between one twin living a life as an African American and the other as white is the predominate theme. The life of plenty and ease for one, compared to the hard work, living on the edge of poverty and fear for the other. Yet it's not all ease for one and it's not all fear for the other. Bennett's story is far more nuanced than that.

Passing requires one to be constantly vigilant and constantly 'in role'. A back story has to be created and remembered. The fear of being exposed creates tension and keeps one on guard the whole time. It's impossible to relax or feel like you completely belong.

Bennett covers off a lot of very complicated, complex ideas about who we are, how identity is determined or created and how we judge and classify others. She shows us how the childhood experiences of each twin leads to the choices they make. We see it play out again, with their daughters, growing up in very different worlds, struggling to find who they are, where they belong and with whom. The whole idea of nature or nurture is woven through each story line, and each character, in that messy, mixed up way we all experience.

Coincidence plays a part in the story, which could be annoying for some readers. As can the omnipresent narrator. But both devices worked for me. Bennett incorporates both successfully to negotiate the various time jumps within the story, the 'seeing forward and backward at the same time', that allows the reader to see what all the characters are experiencing. We see that 'passing' or changing identity, can be permanent or temporary, tragic or fun. It can be liberating and painful. A relief and guilt-ridden at the same time. 

Bennett leaves us with the lies, or stories, we all tell our selves and our families. Are they really lies? Or are they a natural desire to reframe our lives into the one we really want? That 'better' self that makes us feel whole or complete or more like our real selves? 

Who gets to decide what is real or not, in the first place? The performer or the audience? Are we pretending, performing or projecting? Are they secrets or an act of privacy or a bid for personal safety? Bennett doesn't judge or moralise. She doesn't ask us to condemn Stella for her choices, or Reese, or Barry, or Jude, or Kennedy, or Early or Adele. 

Stella is not made to pay the ultimate price, usually asked of characters in her position. There is no dramatic moment of exposure. There is no guilt-ridden martyr sent back to where she came from, in disgust and ridiculed, welcome nowhere and understood by no-one. The moral of the story is not to stay with your own kind at all cost. It's about making your own life in whichever why that feels right to you. 

There's a whole lot more to say about this story and I'm sure my book club will go there tonight. 

Favourite Quotes
  • The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.
  • That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone.
  • Jude wanted to change and she didn't see why it should be so hard or why she should have to explain it to anyone.
  • You shouldn’t tell people the truth because you want to hurt them. You should tell them because they want to know it.
  • The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.


  1. I loved this book when I read it a while ago. Yes, there were coincidences but I accepted them, and all novels are shaped to an extent. There was such a lot to this book but as you say, messy and contingent and not neatly shaped.

    1. I was disappointed in the end, Liz, that my book group didn't love it as much as I did. Our discussion ended up being quite lacklustre.

      I'm keen to read The Mothers now though.


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