Book Review: Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (2020)

The Vanishing Half is the story of the Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella. They grew up in the small village of Mallard, which is solely inhabited by light-skinned black people who suffer from discrimination from white people, whilst refusing to mix up with darker-skinned people. Desiree and Stella witness their father’s being lynched by a group of white men when they were little girls, and it traumatised them. They grew to hate the village and eventually fled from it one morning when they were sixteen. They escaped to New Orleans where they both found a job, but soon went their separate ways. Stella leaves her sister without a word, passing as a white woman and enjoying all the possibilities that it entails. Meanwhile Desiree marries a man with darker skin and with whom she has a child, but her husband is abusive and she manages to run away from him and goes back to Mallard with her daughter, who has to suffer from the discrimination from the other villagers due to her dark skin.

This novel tackles a lot of different issues and one that I found the most impactful was that of identity, especially finding your identity within or outside of race. In the end, this novel compares the ‘standard’ lives of a black woman and a white woman. Desiree had to escape from her violent husband and had no choice but to go live with her mother. In Washington, she would work for the FBI and compare fingerprints – an important office job. But back in Louisiana, all that she is able to do (as in, all society accepts her to do) is waitressing at the local diner. It doesn’t mean that this is not a job that can’t make her happy, it just illustrates the fact that society deprives her from the right to elevate herself socially; she is stuck in her hometown with no way out. Stella on the other hand, as she passes as a white woman, can become a secretary and marries her boss. She gets to have a beautiful house, expensive jewellery, and host sumptuous dinner parties. These are traditional symbol of success for a woman in the 1970s-80s, but they do not necessarily make her happy as she is stuck in her lies and cannot show her true self to anyone. In fact, the only moment where she is herself is when she becomes friend with her black neighbour. But what matters here is that Stella was free to go up in the world, whereas Desiree was maintained right down.

This difference between going through life as a black woman vs a white woman is illustrated by Desiree’s daughter when she meets a young white woman her age and realises how ‘inscrutable’ their lives are and how everything will always be easier for the blonde white woman than for her.

Of course, this leads to the question of colourism within the black community. It’s something that needs to be mentioned in this review, but these are not words for me to speak so instead, I would recommend watching this quick video to understand what colourism is and how it impacts women of colour in their daily lives:

I also found that The Vanishing Half was a beautiful lesson in love, in all its forms. To show the importance of respecting the other’s privacy and boundaries; to accept the unconventional aspect of a relationship to be happy because being married is not always synonymous with bliss.

Brit Bennett wrote such a beautiful book, and really managed to depict the complexities of love, identity and race. Her writing is quite simple, which turned her book into an absolute page-turner, and I think a simple language is always the best way to convey complex ideas. I would definitely recommend reading The Vanishing Half, I’m actually quite surprised it was not longlisted for the Booker Prize this year as it’s a very impactful and masterly written novel!

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