by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers was one of my favorite reads of 2017, so I was thrilled when I saw that she had written a new novel . . . but also nervous. Could The Vanishing Half possibly live up to Bennett’s amazing first novel? I’m happy to share that it absolutely does.
Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins growing up in the tiny town of Mallard, Louisiana, an all-black town whose citizens are “colorstruck.” Founded by Alphonse Decuir in 1848, Mallard’s residents marry and procreate in hopes of subsequently whiter generations. Desiree and Stella are born into this hierarchy, prime examples of the success of the town’s goals. The family’s lightness, however, does not prevent tragedy, and the girls experience firsthand the ugliness of racism in a horrific event that changes the course of their lives.
Desiree and Stella’s identities revolve around each other–they are always “the twins,” and their similarities emphasize their differences. Desiree is the bolder sister: she’s a bold, unrestrained performer, while Stella is disciplined and quiet. Desiree yearns, from the time she’s small, to leave Mallard, so it’s a surprise when Stella is the one who pushes for their flight.
It’s here–in events that precede the first page of the novel–that this multi-generational story really begins: with the girls’ departure from the tiny town that has so defined who they are. Bennett skillfully moves between time periods and generations, between different characters’ points of view. There’s a beautiful sense, when the story is in Mallard, of the collective consciousness of the town that reminded me of The Mothers. But she branches out from that telling to explore other perspectives.
The author spins a story around a fate split in two, as one twin marries a man much darker than herself and the other begins to pass as white. The separation of the twins is the catalyst for a beautifully written novel–I could not stop highlighting sentences in this book!–that focuses, really, on how we name ourselves, how we label our identities. Through the stories of Desiree and Stella and those who follow, Bennett explores an array of characters who are trying to define who they are, both for themselves and for others. The questions here are universal: How much of who we are is a performance? How much does our identity depend on our appearance? Can we name our identity–our race, our gender, our lifestyle–and shape it through that naming?
Bennett has a deft touch with character, creating people whose struggles and triumphs are authentic and moving. I didn’t always like the choices that the characters of The Vanishing Half made, but I understood them and, ultimately, sympathized with them. This is a beautiful, important, thought-provoking novel that I would definitely recommend to a friend and would happily read again.
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