Book Reviews

The Vanishing Half book cover

The Vanishing Half – An Invitation to Examine Black History

Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half is one of the most intense novels I have read, one which honours the traditions of passing literature. As we weave through Bennet’s exceptional omniscient narration, we witness our characters through their younger years until the ages of discovering grey hairs. Desiree Vignes and Stella Vignes, identical twins and complexions of the lightest shade of black. The twins ran away together at 16 from their single mother, who lost the father of her kids when he was lynched, to live a better life away from Mallard. Their lives “split as evenly as their shared egg” when Stella disappears from Desiree in New Orleans with Blake, her boss. Stella passes as a white person, living the rest of her life in fear of her black identity being discovered. With her childhood trauma and seduced by white privilege, Stella is swayed from returning.

While the novel exhibits deep-rooted and painful subjects, such as racism, sexual and domestic abuse, Bennet delicately incorporates a sense of serenity and thrilling drag moments, uplifting the spirit of the book. We recognise colourism within Mallard, where the twins grew up when Desiree returns with “a child that black”. A place non-existent on maps, small and only occupied by those who “refused to be treated as Negroes.” 

As the story continued, I felt that Bennet articulated her plot proficiently in that though both twins live separate lives, broken and shallow, they unite through their daughters, Jude and Kennedy, whose lives we also follow. What happens to be one of my favourite sections of the novel, is also where I praise Bennet for her literature; she elegantly solidifies the relationship between the lovely Jude and her boyfriend Reese. From Jude respecting Reese’s limits and boundaries to the secrets they have between each other, we witness an intimacy that has been absent or stripped from the other characters. Not only did I feel like Bennet delivered with portraying the damage and trauma Black people endure, but also the trans and gay communities.

Stella’s meticulous efforts of maintaining her false identity become so personal that she rebukes the black family that moves in across from her. Through the danger that Stella fears, being discovered as a black woman, we recognise the security and dignity that black people are not afforded – even in contemporary society. Though The Vanishing Half takes place during 1950-1990’s, it reflects on the progression of the black and LGBTQ community today. The transformation of drag queens and characters who represented rootlessness and the need for true companionship, intensified and disseminated the urgency of Stella’s performance of ‘passing’. 

I sat smiling and sobbing whilst I read this book as I felt every part of the novel satisfied my expectations, despite Stella’s fate; it only urged me to consider the harsh realities of this world. Overall, Brit Bennet generously coheres racial and sexual identity with 21st-century wittiness, which brings me to say that this book will be a great read specifically to those who have a particular interest in racial politics. It is an eye-opening novel that forces readers, to question and appreciate their positions in society.

Author: Brit Bennet.

Published by: Dialogue Books.

Image credit: Inkyard Press

One of the Good Ones – Honouring Black Lives the Right Way

Articulate. Nice kid. Star student. Human.

Sister-author duo Maika and Maritza Moulite return with a poignant and honest exploration of police brutality, sisterhood and history in their crime novel One of the Good Ones.

It tells the story of teen activist and rising YouTube star Kezi Smith who mysteriously dies after attending a social justice rally. As the news of Kezi’s death spreads, she is immortalised as a model student with a promising future and deemed, quote, ‘one of the good ones’. To honour their sister, Happi and Genni venture to complete Kezi’s passion project of a road trip mapped out using an heirloom copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book. 

One of the Good Ones is told through multiple perspectives and shifts from present-day Los Angeles, California, to the late 1960s, where we trace the Smith family in the deep South. In both periods, the novel thrusts black history to the forefront by focalising The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guidebook for black travellers during Jim Crow Law. The Green book features in the novel not only as a guide for Happi and Genni’s trip but also spotlights the unchanged attitudes to racial injustice. 

The Moulite sisters began writing One of the Good Ones in 2018 and were working on it when Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed. As soon as I found this out, I reached out to them and asked why they decided to write a story about commemorating a loved one. ‘We end up knowing their names.’, Maika told me, ‘but these people are more than hashtags. They are human beings who are missed’. The phrase ‘one of the good ones’ refers to the black lives we accept. The ‘well-behaved’ ones whose perfect track record prove stereotypes wrong. However, Maika and Maritza seek to point out the fact that no one should have to prove their worthiness of life. 

The patchwork of viewpoints weave in and out of each other, and I loved when different narrators came in contact by chance. Whilst reading, I was in awe of the writing style. The moment you think you know what will happen next, the story changes gears and makes you do a double-take. At times, it was a challenge to hone in on some of the novel’s issues, particularly the discussion surrounding Kezi’s homosexuality. I would have liked to see the LGBTQIA element fleshed out a little more, as it would have been interesting to see how Kezi’s choices conflict with her faith.

It’s not very often I sit down to read a book and gape, laugh and cry as I turn from page to page, but I know that when this is the case, I have come across a powerful piece of writing. One of the Good Ones is a multi-layered book with a twist that will have you stunned. The themes of systemic racism, justice, and police brutality open the door to important conversations in the fight for black lives. Maika and Maritza probe us to consider what true allyship looks like whilst questioning what makes us worthy. Overall, this book is for anyone wanting to educate themselves on black issues. It’s for the sisters and the ‘sistahs‘ in search of an illustration of black womanhood, but most of all, it’s for those who may never be recognised as ‘one of the good ones’. 

Authors: Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite

Published by: Inkyard Press

Islands of Abandonment book cover
Image credit: Matthew Chant

Islands of Abandonment – Exploring Some of the Many Places Left Behind

All good things may have to come to an end but that doesn’t mean that a flower can’t sprout through the ashes of a burned city. Cal Flyn’s non-fiction masterpiece explores this rebirth of nature through twelve sights of ecological change. I messaged Flyn who hails from the Highlands of Scotland to ask how she managed to find all of these abandoned places and she informed me that it took a great deal of research, reading about the ecological process and weighing up what places would suit her writing the best.

Flyn separates her collection of essays into 4 sections; the first being delves into four places; West Lothian in Scotland, The Buffer Zone in Cyprus, Harju in Estonia and ending the section with the famous nuclear disaster of Chernobyl in Ukraine. She walks through Chernobyl witnessing the effects humans have on our planet and what happens when things go wrong. I was moved by her captivating language as I am reminded the destructive effects humans have on our planet.

Part Two focuses on two areas of the United States, the first being the eerily deserted city of Detroit, in which the population has plummeted from the millions to hundreds of thousands. Flyn observes the empty roads of abandoned houses. In the same section she visits Paterson, New Jersey that, like Detroit, had a big industrial change that damaged the fabric of the local society.

Flyn explores another four places in Part Three of her collection. These are Arthur Kill in Staten Island, Zone Rouge in France, Rose Cottage on the island of Swona in Scotland and Amani in Tanzania. Amani is an abandoned ecological research facility. Flyn told me that she knew she “wanted to write about invasive species and novel ecosystems, so I had to find an abandoned plantation, physical garden or botanical garden that fit the bill. Amani ticked all the boxes.”

Part Four, Endgame, explores the last two destinations for Flyn: Plymouth in Monserrat and the Salton Sea in California. The latter is a relic of times past, from a flood to a tourist destination to now a simmering pool of harsh chemicals and poisons. Flyn stays in a hostel, as she sees some of the outcasts of society. It is a powerful essay to end on, one in which the culmination of the effects we have had on the world is shown.

Islands of Abandonment is the perfect example for seeing the beauty in the rubble that we left behind from our failed visions. As a society, we need to come together to alleviate the pressure humans are putting on the Earth and that as Flyn herself says “all is not lost”, we just have to make a change. Flyn’s poetic writing style perfectly ties into her factual accounts of the journeys she’s taken to bring us this beautiful work of literature. Overall, Flyn’s work is truly sensational and a must read for anyone interested in the effects we are having on our world, and it doesn’t hurt that she herself is a kind enough person to answer my inexperienced questions!

Author: Cal Flyn

Published by: Harper Collins

The Dancing face book cover
Image credit: Sabrina Schioppa

The Dancing Face and the Mission to Correct Historic Bias in British Publishing

One of the best books I’ve read this year is by Mike Phillips. He is a British writer and broadcast journalist. In 1991 he won the Silver Dagger Award by the Crime Writer’s Association for The Late Candidate, in 1996 he won the Arts Foundation Award for Thriller Writing and in 2007 he became an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List. Phillips graces the literary world this year with the republication of The Dancing Face, firstly published in 1997.

An engaging thriller, it is set in the London of the 90s and follows the story of two brothers, Gus and Danny, a Nigerian exile, Okgibo, and the clever Justine. Gus, with the help of two lowlifes, steals the ‘Dancing Face’, an inestimable Benin Mask, from the British Museum, in an attempt to gain an avalanche of attention regarding the British Empire’s thefts in Africa. At that point many characters come into play as they all have an interest for the mask – the millionaire Okgibo, the hopeful Justine, the mercenary Rodney and, finally, Gus’s brother Danny. The introduction is written by the amazing Bernardine Evaristo – she curated with her publisher, Hamish Hamilton, a new series called Black Britain: Writing Back which aim is to “correct historic bias in British publishing and bring a wealth of lost writing back into circulation” (p.vii). The Dancing Face is part of this series thanks to its preoccupation with Black culture being appropriated by the British.

I loved the way the character’s past is extremely relevant to the story – as soon as I got to know them better, I was inclined to understand their present actions rather than judge them. This point was brought up by Phillips himself in a recent interview I had with him – the importance of the past. However, the book has a lovely open ending which makes the reader miss the characters and, at the same time, leaves them satisfied with the story. When I asked him where he thinks his characters ended up after the book ended, he said that their future should be open and mysterious as it is in real life.

Regarding personal backgrounds, it is notable that the image of women is often related to sexual concepts and situations – when I confronted him with the subject, Phillips said that he would not want people to feel like he is sexualising women in his book, rather that the sexualisation is a product of the characters’ background, not the author’s. So, once again, the past plays a huge role. His book is for everyone to read and enjoy. This answer satisfied me greatly – as a feminist, I was taken aback from the objectification in the book. It is soothing to know that it is put in a context of personal background for each character rather than the whole hue of the book.

In conclusion, The Dancing Face is a book I highly recommend for everyone with interest in African culture and thrillers. It raises questions which we are not used to ask ourselves and situations with which we may be not familiar. The way the book never judges the character’s actions and doesn’t give a philosophical explanation of good and bad is comforting. Overall, a great read.

Author: Mike Phillips

Published by: Penguin Random House