Book Review - The Vanishing Half
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TL;DR: read this book. Like, right now.
I usually try to do a review without spoilers, but I think the great thing about this book is that it’s too rich for me to discuss the early parts alone. So if you haven’t read it, just go and read it. Because it’s probably the best thing I’ve read all year.
Now, I’ll create some scrolling space for anyone who DOESN’T want spoilers. THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW THE PICTURE.
This book is ostensibly about a pair of twins, Desiree and Stella, who leave their hometown when they’re 16, and then separate when Stella poses as White and marries a rich White man. Desiree returns 14 years later, with her “blue-black” daughter, Jude. Mallard, the twins’ hometown was built for light-skinned African Americans, and being dark is punished harshly by the community.
Most reviews talk about the racial issue that is clearly present in the novel. And it is, definitely, about bigotry, privilege, and the cost of racism in the US from the 1940s to the 1990s. But for me, it’s mainly about identity. Identity in the context of racism, sure, but still the main issue is identity. Nearly all the characters, even the minor ones, deal with identity issues of some kind. For the main characters, it’s obvious: Desiree deals with being abandoned by Stella, being half of a pair, and always comparing herself to Stella. Stella deals with her split identity as a woman of colour who “passes” for White. Jude deals with accepting her skin colour, having been raised as the only Black girl in Mallard. Kennedy, Stella’s daughter, literally searches for herself throughout her teens, twenties, and into her thirties before she settles down, and even then she finds a job in which she puts on a show, where she can pretend to be someone else.
But consider the minor characters: Early, Desiree’s partner, deals with being left by his parents with his aunt and uncle, and can never stay in one place for too long. Reese, Jude’s partner, is a transgender man, running away from his home and family. Barry, Reese’s friend and Jude’s mentor, performs as a Drag Queen on weekends. And the icing on the cake: Adelle Vignes, the twins’ mother, deals with dementia in old age and loses her identity. The only character who doesn’t seem to be dealing with identity issues is Blake Sanders, Stella’s husband, who is also the only “truly” White person in the cast.
To say that the characters deal with racism or race issues is to oversimplify this book. Yes, they deal with racism. But each of them is a full, round character who deals with so much more than race. They deal with being human in a world that doesn’t view them as humans, and they each deal with it in a different way. This complexity is what makes this book amazing.
As a writer who tries to write about identity, I’m oscillating like a pendulum. Except I’m in both ends at the same time. I know, it’s an odd metaphor, but that’s what I’ve got. On the one hand, I’m utterly inspired by Brit Bennett’s writing. With descriptions such as: “He cut his hair in Plano, hacking off inches in a truck stop bathroom with a stolen hunting knife.” (p. 95) or “she baked her guilt into a lemon cake with vanilla frosting.” (p. 150), and gutting observations like: “that’s what parents do in Brentwood, cast their children out like a fishing net and hope that they catch a talent.” (p. 211) and “Her death hit in waves. Not a flood, but water lapping steadily at her ankles. You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.” (p. 298).
On the other hand, I feel so incompetent having read those. Not only does Bennett write beautifully, but she also was able to write so many rounded characters, each with her own issue, and all connecting back to a single theme. It’s a level of mastery that will take me years to achieve. It’s the hope that someday I’ll be able to create something as touching and true as this book that keeps me going.
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