I’m still wondering if the title is some sort of warning about how half of your day will seemingly vanish while reading this book without being able to put it down. Thanks a lot, Brit, if that’s the case, but next time you could try being more subtle because I definitely didn’t take the hint. No hard feelings though, I can’t imagine a better way of getting back into fiction after maybe a month of non-fiction and poetry.
The Vanishing Half is the story of two twin sisters that are born in the ’50s in Mallard, a village of light-skinned black people – so light-skinned that most of them can easily pass as white and they actually do it in certain circumstances where they can benefit from it (and that is a lot of circumstances). The two sisters run away from home, they want to know more than their own village and they also end up separating from each other: one of them decides to live her life as a black woman and, as an act of rebellion, marries a dark-skinned man, whereas the other one decides to create a whole new identity as a white woman. This allows us, while the story unfolds, to see how wildly different their chosen lives are, how the two women face the outside world, but also how they live with losing each other, with hiding, how they raise their own daughters. Brit Bennett is able to talk about everything this implies without sounding too didactic, she doesn’t mean to scold the potential white reader and ask them to do better – there’s no need for that in order for the message to be received. She’s such an amazing storyteller too – her stories are not only enthralling but are also able to build a space where more than storytelling is happening, and that’s something that’s very rare.
Then they grew older and just became girls, striking in both their sameness and differences. Soon it became laughable thatthere had everbeen a time when no one could tell the twins apart. Desiree, always restless, as if her foot had been nailed to the ground and she couldn’t stop yanking it; Stella, so calm that even Sal Delafosse’s ornery horse never bucked around her. Desiree starring in the school play once, nearly twice if the Fontenots hadn’t bribed the principal; Stella, whip smart, who would go to college if her mother could afford it. 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.
The book also does a very good job when it comes to representation and tackling stereotypes: Barry is a drag queen two nights a week and a boring teacher the rest of his life, Reese is a black trans man. There’s also a very subtle critique towards the feminist movement in the ’80s and its lack of intersectionality. What else could you ask for?
However, I could ask for more. I rated The Vanishing Half with 4/5 because it really felt that in her effort to give space to as many identities as possible and create a very diverse character list, the writer kinda forgot that they were more than those labels, more than the vessels that were there to support the story and to react in ways that were understandable given the events and interactions, without gaining any form of self. We never get to know Reese as more than the trans black man in love with Jude and most of his arc in the book is related to that; Desiree is the rebellious sister, Stella is the quieter, studious one, with a hidden face; Jude is the dark-skinned teenager and, later on, woman always afraid she won’t be loved; Kennedy is the rebellious teenager always looking to find more about herself, to experiment. I could make a list of all the characters and fully describe them in a sentence. They are written to represent some categories and, indeed, they are very different categories to those that are used in books that do not put so much effort into being inclusive. I’m still wondering, though, is this form of representation as helpful as it definitely intends to be? Personally, I would rather read a book with fewer characters and more substance to them than get a lot of joy when a lot of fascinating characters are introduced, only to later notice they stayed at the same level of complexity simply because that’s what they are intended to be.
As I haven’t read anything else from Brit Bennett, I’m not sure whether this really happens because her characters had the purpose of just existing as their specific label or it’s just the usual issue: characters are difficult to write, especially when you have a ton of them.
Despite writing so much about something that could’ve been better executed, the book remains a gem that I read in under two days and this hadn’t happened in a hot minute. I’m going to leave you with my favourite quote:
A place was not solid, Early had learned that already. A town was jelly, forever moldingaround your memories.
He never spoke to Desiree after that. What was he supposed to say? A place, solid or not, had rules. Early mostly felt foolish for thinking that Desiree would ever ignore them for him.