Book Review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books, 2020)

I received an Advance Review Copy of this book. All opinions are my own. This book is available for sale now.

Having not yet read Brit Bennett’s previous novel The Mothers, I wasn’t sure if The Vanishing Half could live up to all the hype. I didn’t really know what the novel was about but in June began to see it on a lot of social media channels and realized I had an ARC. Once I started it, I finished The Vanishing Half in just two days. (Pictured above: me sitting on the front steps of my house while my children play in the driveway.)

Stella and Desiree are twin sisters. They live in the small town of Mallard, a town so small it isn’t on any maps. What makes Mallard truly unique though isn’t that it’s a Black community. After all, this is Louisiana in the 1950s. Where Mallard is unique is that it is a community of light-skinned Black people. Here Stella and Desiree grow up, identical in looks but very different in personality. At the age of sixteen they run away to New Orleans. Years later, only Desiree returns, bringing with her a daughter who shocks the community with her intensely dark skin.

Stella, it seems, has vanished and the sisters are separated for the first times in their lives. We learn (and this is in the book’s blurb so it’s not a spoiler) that Stella has transformed her entire life by passing as white. She marries, has a child, lives in an affluent suburb, all while withholding her true history from every one around her.

The story progresses steadily through time, delving into the sisters’ background as well as their experience both in Mallard and New Orleans together. We see Desiree’s life turn in one direction after her sister disappears and the path that leads her back to Mallard. We see Stella deal with the choices she makes, choices that afford her a lifestyle almost entirely unavailable to a Black woman in that time. Then we watch the daughters of the twins grow up and, unexpectedly, meet.

Jude is the daughter of Desiree, her dark skin makes her stand out in Mallard as does her quiet, bookish nature. She feels like an outcast in her own community but then also when she travels to California for university. Kennedy is the wealthy, spoiled daughter of Stella, wanting more than anything to rebel against the safe life that she perceives her parents as having. When these unexpected cousins meet, the history of two sisters threatens to implode.

There is a lot in this novel that was unexpected and surprising to me as I read. The characters felt both familiar and fresh, each well-rounded with their own secrets and hopes, even those characters who were more minor. The issue of colourist is one that I haven’t read much about and there was a lot of new ground covered here for me. I don’t feel qualified to speak extensively on colourist but the story raises a lot of questions about what race means. Is race simply how others perceive you? Is it your personal history? Can you shed your race or change it? What does it say about a society where a person might want to do so?

Bennett writes so skilfully and in a way that raises a lot of questions and leaves her reader thinking. I will definitely be reading more from her.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett”

  1. I do know that race is a social construct, but how we navigate and react to race is perplexing. I remember watching Bill Mahar accuse a black woman who could easily pass as white as not understanding the struggles of being a black person because no one would judge her for her appearance. He took a lot of heat for that. Then there’s Rachel Dolezal, who claims to be a black woman because that’s how she chooses to identify, not because she has an African ancestry. That one was a huge bomb in the U.S. If you’re interested in stories of passing, Nella Larsen is famous for her novella, Passing.

    1. I remember hearing about Rachel Dolezal, such a crazy story! Issues of passing really do make us think about what race means and the privilege or the lack of privilege behind it. It was interesting to read about the character of Stella who (seemingly) slips into living as a white woman so easily but at a huge personal cost.

  2. Incredible review, I’m glad you found this one so enjoyable and interesting! My copy just arrived and I’m getting very excited to read it. It sounds like this one digs into aspects of race that I don’t read about often, so I’m looking forward to having my perspective challenged.

    1. Thanks so much! I hope you enjoy this one too. I’ll look forward to hearing your opinion of it. Colourism and the idea of passing aren’t something I’ve seen explored much in fiction and I felt like Bennett wrote in such an interesting and nuanced way about it.

  3. I had never heard of this book or author before, but I love how colourful the cover is! Its these (somewhat silly) things that make me want to pick up a book, but I like the sounds of it based on your review too. I just watched The Little Fires Everywhere series on Amazon with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, and I love the complications of race it presents, this book sounds similar. Have you read Little Fires Everywhere or seen the show?

    1. I guess it’s a Book of the Month Club book so it’s been all over instagram. I’ve read Little Fires Everywhere but haven’t seen the series. I could see similarities between the two though what strikes me as different about The Vanishing Half is that almost all of the characters are Black. (Maybe all of them, depending on your opinion.)

  4. I think I first came across the concept in Their Eyes Were Watching God, though I might be mistaken. It does add a different dimension to the idea of race, doesn’t it? We humans do like to find ways to look on other people as inferior and ourselves as superior – well, except us Scots obviously because we’re so much nicer than everyone else… 😉

    1. I need to read that book!

      It definitely made me think about how arbitrary ideas of race are and how much is based on this abstract concept we’ve created rather than anything real. We Canadians have definitely created an entire national identity around being nicer than anyone else!

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