“Desiree and Stella, Mallard’s girls. As they grew, they no longer seemed like one body split in two, but two bodies poured into one, each pulling it her own way”
After The Mothers was released in 2017, Brit Bennett came back with The Vanishing Half in June 2020, which made a dazzling debut and became one of the most read books of the summer. The strong sense of storytelling and compelling characters make it a nice but reflective text. The Vanishing Half made now enough noise and impressions to be shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction and even though it did not seduce the final panel, it is a real literary triumph for Bennett. The first time I read The Vanishing Half, it left a strong enough impression that I was delighted to read it again for this review. My second read did not disappoint. A year had passed between my two readings, and it made me more aware of all the meanderings and intricacies of Bennett’s novel from a more mature standpoint.
The Vanishing Half moves between New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. and through the turbulent decades of the 1960s to the 1990s. But the story starts in the fictional Mallard, Louisiana. A town so small, it doesn’t appear on any maps. Mallard has a strange heritage to be proud of the lightness of its people, a town where people are black, and their skin is white. Identical twins Desiree and Stella Vignes grow up in the close-knit community of Mallard, referred as a sole entity, before deciding to run away at sixteen years old. Together, they survive like they always did, but when you quit everything to become the person you want to become, the other, the twin, your sister, ties you to your old self. To find their places in the world, both girls will abandon each other to pursue the person they always wanted to be, and they will bury who they really are. Ultimately, one will come back to Mallard, the life she resented so much, holding the hand of her girl, the darkest girl the town will ever know. While the other will choose to pass as a white woman and to lie to everyone she cares about. The fates of the twins once so intertwined will drift apart and they will slowly vanish from each other’s lives. Until the day their daughters meet, cards will be redistributed, dice rolled again and maybe the Vignes twins will find each other once more.
“But she was young then. she hadn’t realized how long it takes to become someday else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you”
Bennett slowly unfolds her story around each of the Vignes sisters and their daughters like a a Greek tragedy where fate seems inevitable. Her writing flows easily and feels like a bittersweet candy, sour when she writes about racism, domestic abuse, and trauma whilst gentle about sisterhood, family, and memories. The characters feel more than just ink on paper and the second suggestion on the Google search bar says it all, “is the vanishing half real?”.
Bennett explores a lot of themes throughout her novel, from race and identity to girlhood and family, exploring lies and secrets but also the LGBTQIA+ community during the 1980s and 1990s. This non-exhaustive list of themes could’ve made this novel even stronger and more memorable, yet it can weaken the aim of Bennett. While it does add some interesting depth and perspectives to the story, it sometimes felt like it was too much, and some themes were not enough explored. Particularly when Bennett suggests the idea of “passing as white[MA1] ”. This is an intriguing and uncommon angle on race and identity within Stella’s arch. This would’ve been even more fascinating if she would’ve added a more psychological level to the story. Overall, I was more invested with the parts of Vignes sisters rather than the stories of their daughters and I would’ve enjoy reading more about Stella and Desiree’s storylines and to really delve into their inner struggles and personal lives to expand their character development.
With that said, The Vanishing Half is still a great book with an original story and fascinating characters with whom the reader can grow and evolve. I enjoyed it every time I read it even if I don’t usually read twice a book, allowing me to develop a more mature viewpoint. Identity is the underlying question of the novel and Bennett offers a deep reflection around secrets and lies, asking what we are willing to sacrifice to find ourselves, without forgetting the risk that we might never find out. She ingeniously addresses the universal struggle of trying to fit in a world that doesn’t seem like yours, especially in her characters’ turbulent United States.
The pleasant and well-written style of Bennett coupled with a very interesting plot worthy of its Women’s Prize nomination. Its worldwide popularity already vouches for its quality, and is worthy to belong on any bookshelves.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor
Image courtesy of Emma Trim, Wikimedia Commons