Published by Penguin on February 1, 2022
Genres: Coming of Age, Fiction, Literary, Women, African American & Black, LGBTQ
I was fortunate to begin 2022 with the wonderful The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. This is a beautiful multi-generational drama focusing on race, family, and identity. Bennett is a skilled storyteller. I was fully immersed in her prose and found myself absorbed in the story. This is one of those rare stories that has universal appeal.
The story centers on the Vignes twins Stella and Desiree. The twins are from Mallard, Louisiana a town where many light-skinned Black people reside. The twins have a traumatic childhood after seeing their father get horrifically lynched by White men. At the age of 16 the two sisters run away from their mother’s home to start new lives in New Orleans. However, Stella soon makes a dangerous and shocking decision to leave her sister to go live as a White woman. The book is written from multiple perspectives and takes place from the 1940s to the 1990s. The daughters of the twins are also featured main characters.
While The Vanishing Half is arguably a slow burn the writing is so good that it reads quickly. The major characters are well developed. No perspectives felt weaker than the others. I really enjoyed how the story was told out of order. In the end a complete story of the family was revealed. There is a character that suffers from Alzheimer’s. I found these scenes to be well written, but tough to read as they reminded me of my grandma who suffered from the same disease.
The major theme of the novel is choosing one’s identity. Desiree and Stella who are physically identical, decide to live under different racial identities. Desiree’s trans boyfriend, Reese, struggles feeling comfort with his body that opposes his male identity. The difference is Reese’s gender expression is authentic while Stella’s racial expression is based on a lie. I was deeply saddened that Stella had to deny her Blackness and family in exchange for the privilege and security of life as a White woman. The vastly differing experiences of Desiree and Stella show that racial identity is more than just the color of one’s skin. Unfortunately, one’s presenting racial identity results in vastly differing levels of privilege and wealth in the United States.
The Vanishing Half is worthy of becoming a modern classic. Between the gorgeous writing and complex themes of family, identity, and race there are a lot of discussions to be had surrounding the book. And above all Brit Bennett is a skilled storyteller.
Trigger Warnings: Alzheimer’s, Racial Violence