TLDR: A multigenerational story that stretches across half a century, the protagonists are the beautiful and mysterious, Vignes twins: Desiree and Stella. The story begins from their own childhood in the town of Mallard, and continues from where their paths diverge: breaking into half, all the way into the lives of their daughters. Desiree and Stella are identical twins, and yet with one single, decisive action, they are separated into two entirely separate people. What follows is both an intimate account of identity alongside commentary on race and womanhood. The book feels like a relentless journey into the Vignes twins’ lives, but also one you want to stop on and savour.
Book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet
Synopsis: The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities.
Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past.
Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?
Publisher: Little, Brown
(Reading time: 3 mins)
The story stretches from the 1950s to the 1990s, and not only does it capture the lives of the twins, Desiree and Stella, but their daughters, their parents, their friends. It’s a true multigenerational epic, and the author’s strength shines through in that it’s a captivating story from start to finish.
There are a few recurring characters the narration returns to throughout the book: Desiree and Stella, of course, in addition to Jude, Desiree’s daughter, and Kennedy, Stella’s daughter. However, it also dips into other characters, such as Early, a bounty hunter, which not only gives us a more complete understanding of the twins and their lives, but fleshes out each time period and context even better. The story is always aware of when it is occurring, and the way times change, not only through characters growing older, but society changing around them. Maybe this is most prominent in the way Mallard, the twins’ hometown, changes, but what it means stays the same.
The town of Mallard, is set in the deep South of the United States. It is populated intentionally only by light-skinned black people, of which the twins are the epitome. Colorism – which is prejudice against people with dark skin – is a repeat theme of this book, particularly when Desiree brings her dark-skinned daughter back to the town to live there, and Jude is surrounded always by people who mock her. A large part of Jude’s story is learning about her own self-worth as a black woman, and this is contrasted quite directly by Stella learning about the worth society gives her when she is white.
Sometimes too many narrators can be off-putting, but here it’s more like the voices of a chorus, added together to depict every part of the story. What results is a full portrayal of both a timeline of events as well as a really interesting look at outsider vs insider perspective. Of course, this is the whole point of the story: are you what you say you are, or what others think? This is represented in Stella, who assumes a different identity, and also Jude’s boyfriend, Reiss, a transgender man, but in fact each character has to decide, at some point, who they are and how that matters.
What it means to be black is explored repeatedly throughout the book. I found it a truly educating experience not just on the broad category of ‘identity,’ but each nuance that comes with racial identity, particularly for a black woman in the US. When Kennedy is confronted by the black ancestry within her, for example, her response is: “It doesn’t make me anything…My father’s white, you know. And you don’t get to show up and tell me what I am.”
Kennedy has grown up with two white parents, or at least, a mother who has been pretending to be white. Stella’s part of the story is a truly unflinching look at what race means; is it or not an artificially created concept? Stella is given a job when she is white-passing, a husband, a house. She is treated courteously because of this perceived whiteness, and in return, she learns about race from the other side to which she was born. Stella becomes a woman always running from her past, afraid of being found out, and thus someone whose knee-jerk reaction to her new black neighbours is mistreatment, and avoidance. We aren’t given the end of Stella’s story – or in fact anyone’s story – and so the author gives us no resolution, no idea whether we should think Stella’s decision to assume a new identity was wrong or right. Most of the agonising over the decision taken by Stella is, in fact, just limited to her pov — so is it even our business? We are just here to watch the story play out in some ways, and watch the multigenerational effects.
Your perspective in reading this book is very much as an outsider. It’s a story about identity, which is a personal thing. And putting these deeply personal experiences in the wider context of late 1900’s America gives the whole book a tangible, acute feel.
Is it worth the read? Definitely, and maybe a reread if you speed through it like I did!
Similar to: The interlinking of narratives reminded me a lot of Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, although the stories are not alike.