The Vignes twins, Stella and Desiree, grow up together in a small, southern community. Mallard is a town that Desiree longs to escape. And so, aged sixteen, the twins run away to New Orleans in search of somewhere new. It is here that their lives diverge. When Stella takes on a new job, she “passes” as white and becomes involved with her employer. It isn’t long before she abandons her sister, leaving her family forever. Despite the miles and decades of silence between them, Stella and Desiree will always be intertwined. When their own daughters meet coincidentally many years later, the secrets and lies of their mothers’ past collide.
The Vanishing Half is the first novel by Brit Bennett that I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last. Bennett is the ultimate storyteller. This book is the opposite of a ‘slow-burn’ – it delves straight into the lives of the Vignes twins and gripped me from the very first page.
Bennett gives so much time and attention to each of her central characters’ innermost thoughts, feelings and worries. While one sister is desperate to find her ‘vanished’ other half, the other sister is equally desperate never to be found. Having read other novels that address the concept of ‘passing’ in American literature (namely Passing by Nella Larsen, published in 1929), The Vanishing Half builds upon the literary trope. The way she writes Stella’s story – her life choices, her constant state of fear and her emotional turmoil – is empathetic, unflinching and compassionate. Early on, we discover that the twins’ father was brutally murdered by racists. Desiree remembers her father’s skin
“so light that, on a cold morning, she could turn over his arm to see the blue of his veins. But none of that mattered when the white men came for him.”
This traumatising moment enables readers to see the twins’ future choices and motivations with even greater clarity.
The novel is interested in how the past impacts the future and the many reasons why a person may feel compelled to leave the past behind. It’s a beautifully written, emotionally intelligent, complex story that will make you think about the prejudice that still exists today and the deep rooted, unjust inequalities in society that make some peoples’ lives infinitely more challenging than others. Bennett explores race, sexuality, transitioning gender, poverty, family and so much more in between. The incredible story of the Vignes twins and their daughters will be read and reread for many years to come.