Staff Review – The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett was published in 2020 and has received rave reviews ever since. It was the Goodreads 2020 winner for Historical Fiction, opens a new window and has been a popular choice at TBPL since it’s publication. The story follows identical twins Desiree and Stella Vignes, who grew up in the small town of Mallard, not far from New Orleans. In this small Black town, the founder (the twins’ great-great-great-grandfather) was light-skinned himself, and dreamed of future generations lighter still. Therefore, there has been a long-standing history of marrying lighter and lighter, and so the Black residents of Mallard don’t appear to be Black to the untrained eye. There are some residents who have, in other towns, passed as white because of their lighter skin colour, though they are indeed Black, getting away with all kinds of things that Black people in the 1950s could never do. The story begins in 1954 when the twins are 16 and continues into the 1990s. Desiree and Stella decide to leave home at 16 and run away to New Orleans. From there, they decide to live very different lives. Stella marries a white man who believes she is also white and have a daughter named Kennedy, while Desiree marries “the darkest man she could find” and has a beautifully dark-skinned daughter named Jude. The novel changes focus between these women over the years and how different their lives are based on the choices they make.

“The Vanishing Half” touches on a lot of topics, mainly those of race, identity and family. Stella tries to pass as a white woman, while her identical twin Desiree embraces her Black identity. Jude falls for transgender Reese at UCLA, and Kennedy struggles with knowing who she is, as well as her secretive mother. While the novel is set over 40 years, the choices of the Vignes twins trickles down throughout the years into the lives of their daughters, greatly affecting who they become as women. The novel really shows the reader the impact our decisions can have, not just on our lives, but the people connected to us.

While it touches on many topics, this novel is propelled by secrets. The farther the reader gets through the novel, the more secrets are revealed to them that the characters are keeping from each other. Everyone, at some point in the novel, is keeping a secret from someone they love. Some secrets are much larger than others, but they all impact the characters and their choices. The reader is reminded and shown vividly the impact that keeping secrets can have on someone’s life. Stella’s entire identity is changed and reborn from her secret, becoming a completely different person altogether. It is fascinating to read a story that begins with twins who are thought to love each other so deeply, but then choose to keep substantial secrets from each other. Secrets of abuse, love and more are revealed to the reader, but rarely between characters. This is a powerful novel that will stay with readers long after they turn the last page. Be sure to check out The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett today!