I’d heard a bit about this book before I read it, but I have to say that I had not paid too much attention to it. I’d recently tried to watch the film Passing (made in 2021 and starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson), one that had been on my must-watch list for some time, and I fell asleep less than halfway through! It was slow and I found it hard to get into, but perhaps I should give it another chance. The Vanishing Half deals with a similar topic so I was not in a rush to pick it up. It came up as an audiobook suggestion, however, so I decided to give it a go over the summer.
The story begins with twin sisters Stella and Desiree Vignes, growing up in the small town of Mallard, Louisiana in the 1950s. Segregation remains in place in the Deep South of America, of course, but the black citizens of Mallard are unusual in that they are particularly light-skinned, a consequence of the town’s history and in particular its founder. Prejudice and discrimination are nonetheless deeply embedded. Both girls are bright and ambitious, but their widowed mother withdraws them from school prematurely in order that they can work with her at the house of wealthy local landowners and help to support the family.
Stella and Desiree are frustrated by the manual toil and the unwelcome sexual advances of their employer and decide to run away. The twins have starkly different personalities; Stella is the quieter one, the more academic, Desiree is more outgoing, more vocal in her desire to escape the oppressed atmosphere of Mallard and is the prime mover in the escape plan.
The two young women find themselves in New Orleans working in a laundry, with little money. After her sister is fired, Desiree encourages Stella to apply for a clerical job. Stella does not expect to be successful, but, with her very light skin, she is mistaken for a white woman which means that her skin colour is less important than her skills and she gets a job working for Blake Sanders. Finding that her status as a “white woman” affords her privileges which she has never before experienced, Stella maintains her secret and soon finds there is no way back. Furthermore, Blake falls in love with Stella and eventually asks her to marry him. Stella decides to leave her sister and her old life behind.
The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.From Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half“
Meanwhile, Desiree, newly bereft, gets on with her own life. She marries a black man and moves to New York, where they have a daughter, Jude (whose skin is very dark like her father’s, not light, like her mother’s). But her husband becomes violent and so she decides to leave him. Desiree has nothing and has completely lost touch with her sister and so returns home to her mother’s house in Mallard with her daughter. Desiree never intends to stay, but somehow she does. She gets a job in the local cafe, where she quickly becomes indispensable, begins a relationship with a childhood admirer, Early Jones, who works as a shadowy investigator, and settles into small town life.
Meanwhile Stella has also had a daughter (blonde and white), Kennedy, and leads a privileged life in California. Her world is somewhat rocked when a black family moves into her affluent neighbourhood. They are treated with suspicion and contempt by local residents and Stella finds herself torn. Despite herself, Stella develops a close friendship with the woman, which triggers a series of events and changes in Stella, a burgeoning of desires which will eventually lead her back to Mallard.
Unlike what little I saw of the film Passing, The Vanishing Half has a complex plot which is deftly handled by Brit Bennett. It spans a large time span, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and moves back and forth in time and between the parallel lives of the two sisters. It becomes even more complex when the two women’s daughters begin to play a larger part in the story, leading their own lives away from their mothers. The book also explores many different types of relationship, between Stella and Desiree and their husbands, Desiree’s with Early, fathers and daughters, the women’s relationship with their mother Adele, and the two, very different, cousins, Kennedy and Jude. There are many ‘halves’ in the book; Stella and Desiree, as twins, are of course, two halves of a single birth event, but there is also the dichotomy in Stella’s life in particular. There is also the issue of two sides to every story and in this novel each person’s personal narrative is multi-layered.
I was gripped by this book and on audio it was brilliantly read by Shayna Small. I might have wished for a neater ending, but in fiction, as in life, things don’t always work out quite how you want them to!
Nonetheless I recommend this book highly.