I read this book against the back drop of the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations gathering momentum across the globe. It is hard to imagine a more momentous time to have engaged with this particular novel, but I am quite convinced that whenever I had met The Vanishing Half , it’s impact would be have been the same.
Brit Bennett has created a mesmerising, immersive and critically important novel. Published by Dialogue, I am so grateful to Millie Seaward for sending me a gifted copy.
The story begins in Louisiana 1954, where twins Desiree and Stella Vignes are growing up in small town named Mallard. Mallard is unique. A black community, but one whose history is built on years of marriages between ‘mulattos’. It’s inhabitants are black but ‘each generation (is) lighter than the one before’.
But make no mistake, this is not a white community. When their father is killed in a klan style lynching, part of which the girls witness, their dreams of school and better life are snatched away. By 16 they are working for white families.
It is free spirited Desiree who persuades Stella to break free, and head to New Orleans. But it is Stella whose life takes the most dramatic turn. When she is mistaken for a white woman, a whole new life opens up before her. What starts as an honest mistake takes on a life of it’s own. One that will pull her away from her family and her old life forever.
But can anyone truly leave their heritage, race and identity behind them? This is the question that is explored throughout out this beautiful and perceptive novel.
In the case of Stella, Brit Bennett, has created a complex and multilayered character. It is all too tempting to dismiss and judge the decisions that Stella has made. It is in the gift and skill of the author to make the reader to stop and reflect on the choices Stella makes.
We are forced to question whether it is Stella who chose to redefined herself or was it society. Is it so wrong that Stella, bone tired from the daily fight against prejudice and injustice, takes the way to a life less fraught, less dangerous? Think of the town she grew up in, it could be argued that she is just taking the town’s philosophy one step further. Or is she crossing an unforgivable line, by turning her back on her life, family and denying her race?
Stella’s story is at the heart of the novel, but the impact of her choices and what it takes to live with these decisions are felt across the generations. Through the eyes of her daughter Kennedy, raised with money and opportunity, we get an emerging understanding of operational and inherent white privilege. Compare Kennedy’s life to her cousin Jude; as black as Kennedy is white, their lives cross but struggle to connect.
The comparison of the direction of the next generation gets starkly and comprehensively to the nub of institutional and long standing racism. By exchanging a black life for a white one Stella seems, almost effortlessly to rise. But is Stella’s life a true life or a half life? Does she exchange one type of fight, complication and heartbreak for another one?
Within the novel Stella is not the only character looking to redefine herself. Reese, partner of Jude, is transsexual, moving forward, and like Stella looking to make sense of a hostile and changing world. The introduction of Reese further enhances the question of where your sense of self comes from. Is it an inherent need, rising from deep inside yourself, or is it something created from your experiences, environment and inheritance?
This is a novel filled to the brim with complexities, joy and pain, truth and lies. The title, The Vanishing Half, is so relevant to and representative of the events and characters within it. It’s generational span is a showcase for a cast of strong, multilayered and authentic women. This novel raises awareness, provokes discussion and offers hope. At any time I would recommend this book, at this time it is a must read.