Since its release in 2020, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half has been all over my social media feeds. It debuted at number one on The New York Times fiction best-seller list, was longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction, and won the Goodreads choice award in best historical fiction. To find out if it lives up to the hype, there was no other way for me than to read it. And having finally done so, I can tell you: yes it does!
Spanning five decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s, The Vanishing Half follows the stories of the twin sisters Stella and Desiree Vignes, who as teenagers decide to escape from the Southern black community they grew up in. Inseparable as children, they begin to drift apart and lead completely different lives. While Desiree eventually returns to her hometown with her black daughter, Stella secretly passes for white, hiding her past from her white husband and daughter. But years later, when the paths of the twin’s teenage girls cross, they are confronted once again with their past, their identities, and their missing half.
The Vanishing Half explores themes of racism, colorism, sexism and homophobia. In particular, it focuses on the trope of white passing – which is when light-skinned black people attempt to remake themselves as white. In doing so, it reanimates a long tradition of ‘passing narratives.’ Stories of racial passing have been rewritten by American authors for centuries. Bennett’s novel revisits the trope and retells it with a modern twist. Whereas the act of passing had previously been treated as disgraceful moral transgression that sometimes even ended in death, it goes unnoticed–and unpunished–in Bennett’s novel. The inner struggle that comes with the decision to pass as white is portrayed, but never judged or condemned.
The trope of passing is necessarily bound up with questions of identity. And so performance plays a big role in the story. It is not only Stella who’s contemplating the role she’s playing, but also the other characters. One of the central questions the novel raises is: what does it mean to be black or white? To what extend is race a mere performance? In many ways, The Vanishing Half takes the idea of colorism to extremes and thereby points to the absurdity of race and racial categories.
“The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.”
I was hooked straight away and truly enjoyed each chapter of it. Bennett has a beautiful writing style that keeps you turning pages. Each part of the novel is told from the perspective of someone else–mostly Desiree, Stella and their daughters–with each one having a distinct voice. We see the characters both through their own and through an outsider’s eyes, which adds complexity to the narrative and the characters.
Soon to be adapted into an HBO limited series, The Vanishing Half is both a timely and a timeless read. The book had me spellbound from beginning to end. It truly deserves all the attention it gets.
Have you read The Vanishing Half? How did you like it? Let me know in the comment section below!