Tully Mahoney ’23
It should come as no surprise that The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett won the Goodreads Choice Awards for the best historical fiction novel of 2020 and was immediately picked up by HBO to be made into a limited series. This novel is wonderfully intricate and beautifully written. The characters lift off the page and are bound into a beautiful story that illuminates themes of race, formation of identity, recurrence, and progress.
This novel highlights a set of twins, the Vignes sisters, from Mallard, LA. Mallard is a southern community that is “obsessed with lightness.” Although the entire community is populated by Black people, its members are consumed with the idea of being light because of internalized oppression. Indeed, the people of Mallard grapple with forming a single identity: they desire lightness, yet unequivocally identify with their blackness. For Desiree and Stella Vignes, this small town’s value of lightness is incredibly suffocating, especially after witnessing the death of their father as children: “[they] didn’t hate Mallard as much as [they] felt trapped by its smallness.”
When the sisters finally summon the courage to escape the confines of the town, they flee Mallard to New Orleans in the middle of the night, planning to never return. They had spent their entire lives together, and always expected to. However, Desiree is unaware of her sister’s plan for her future—when the pair arrives in New Orleans, Stella uses the light color of her skin to pass as white, which ultimately forces her to choose between one life, the one she shares with her sister, and a new, “white” life. One fateful day, Stella makes her choice, packing up everything from her shared apartment with Desiree and setting out for her new life as a white-passing person. Creating a new life is not too difficult for Stella, for “she was always inventing her life.” Rather, the true loss appears in Desiree’s deep yearning to revitalize a piece of herself that only lives in her twin sister.
Bennett binds together two generational stories, following the points of view of Stella, Desiree, and their daughters to create a well-rounded, complex storyline that is perfectly curated. This author has a great ability to make scenes come alive, so that readers can truly visualize each aspect of the story. For instance, the line, “her skin the color of sand barely wet,” is incredibly unique and creates a powerful visual.
For this reader, the beginning third of this novel felt a little too slow, although crucial in order for the rest of the novel to be as captivating as it truly is. The Vanishing Half is incredibly thought-provoking, as it explores a struggle with identity that persists across multiple generations even as the politics of each generation change. Bennett’s attention to this matter highlights how identity crises follow political turmoil and internalized oppression.
Despite its slow start, there is truly nothing about this novel that readers will not love. The Vanishing Half deserves an undoubtable 5/5 stars.