I read lots of books that I’d be happy to call great. I read loads of books that I’d go on to recommend to friends and family. But every now and then one comes along that blows everything else out of the water and takes its place on the pedestal reserved for the absolute zenith of quality writing. You can undoubtedly see where I’m going with this; The Vanishing Half is one such book and I suspect it will be a long time before I read anything that comes close to achieving what this novel managed to do. In fact, I’ve been sitting indecisively at the laptop for some time now, wondering where an earth to start – and how to convey the sheer perfection of its emotional heft, sublime writing and arresting story.
Well, let’s start with a plot summary. The novel follows the lives of a pair of twins – Desiree and Stella – who are born in the small American town of Mallard in the 1940s. It’s an unusual place; its founder, Alphonse Decuir, was a freed slave (and the twins’ ancestor) whose dream was to build a town populated by a black community, one which “refused to be treated like Negroes”. Yet his ideal vision was one of “lightness”; we are told how:
"...he imagined his children's children's children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before."
And it’s skin colour that ultimately drives the twins in very different directions. Desiree lives out her life as the black woman she is, but once the adolescent Stella realises she can pass for white, her life is set on a trajectory that sees her leave her family, and hometown and her identity behind to forge a new persona – a persona that is white. The women’s choices have consequences that last a lifetime, ones that are borne not only by themselves but by their children, who become the ultimate victims of a life defined by lies, evasion and subterfuge.
What drew me into the novel straight away was the evocative depiction of small-town America as it was in the mid twentieth century. The descriptions of the mundane – the familiar and unchanging clientele at the local diner, the twins watching Audrey Hepburn movies at the local picture house, their mother in her rocking chair shelling beans – are made to seem at once inconsequential and loaded with meaning, nostalgic and yet utterly authentic. The writing carries with it a real sense of affection on the part of the author towards not only her characters but the world they inhabit, flawed and brutal though it may be.
This brutality, when it appears, is a real shock, a flash of horror incongruous against the seemingly gentle, benign setting; it marks the beginning of what will be a tragically common thread through the twins’ lives – racism and the violence that all too often comes with it. At times it takes the form of social discrimination, ironically by members of the community who consider themselves
"fine people, good people, who donated to charities and winced at newsreels of southern sheriffs swinging clubs at colored college students. They thought [Martin Luther] King was an impressive speaker - they might even have cried at his funeral, that poor young family - but they still wouldn't have allowed the man to move into their neighbourhood."
At other times, when the white community’s sense of their inherent privilege is threatened, social exclusion turns to violent action – sometimes under the cover of darkness, at other times in metaphorical and literal daylight, invading the very places where people believe they can feel safe and secure. These parts of the book are hard to read, but crucial to the painful truth that Brit Bennett is exposing through her novel: racism is everywhere, from the thugs that do their fatal damage with a crowbar to the white-collar workers of affluent suburbia who inflict theirs through petitions, gossip, bullying and harassment.
Ultimately, I’d say this was a novel about belonging, and it asks the question of its characters again and again. Stella, by passing as white, gains access to a section of society who would never allow her to belong if they knew the truth of her ethnicity. Desiree, returning to Mallard as an adult, has to face up to the reality of belonging in a place she always promised herself she’d leave behind her. And when the twins’ children take over the baton of the story, the novel’s tack changes again, charting the struggle of finding your place in the world when there are so many unanswered questions about your family’s past hanging over your head. It was at this point, when Desiree’s daughter Jude leaves Mallard for the other side of the country, hoping to fulfil her potential at college, that the story went off in a direction I didn’t expect. It’s difficult to say much more at this point without giving away too many spoilers so I’ll leave you (hopefully) to read the book and discover for yourself where the story goes. What works so well, though, is that even as the novel branches out, the author keeps bringing all her threads back together at just the right point to keep the tapestry holding together and to remind us as readers how and why things got to where they are.
I could go on writing about The Vanishing Half for days and still not have covered everything I want to say; I can’t remember the last time there was so much to love crammed into one book. The evocation of time and place is spot on; the characters live, breathe and exist without ever striking an inauthentic note; every description, every line of dialogue, every tiny incident is treated with exquisite care and attention. It’s a story about race, yes, but it succeeds as such because it’s also a story about real people – their frustrated ambitions, failed relationships, lies, loves, hopes and regrets. It is without doubt THE best book I’ve read in 2020 and I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with it. Is it a sad book? In many ways yes, and yet for all the heartbreak there are glimmers of hope that keep pushing resolutely through the grief and the pain, meaning that when we come to the end, despite everything we’ve gone through in the company of these characters, we don’t feel any sense of despair.
I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’re lucky enough to have experienced this book for yourself! Thanks for reading.