The Vanishing Half book cover
Image credit: Anisa Mohamed Publisher: Riverhead Books

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.