Brit Bennett is an author outside of time. The Vanishing Half is a novel written a century after the Harlem Renaissance. It is a clear and direct descendant of that literary heritage and is a strong entry when compared to its ancestry. Race, class, and gender discussions are wrapped in beautiful language that is confident yet compassionate toward both reader and character. Somehow, Bennett manages to take these important topics head on but cleaves away the fat of redundancy and banality. Beginning the novel in the climate surrounding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the impact of the storytelling is undeniable, but it is not a relentless series of blows that keep the main characters from recovering nor readers from engaging.
Desiree and Stella are twin sisters born in Mallard, Louisiana. They are the progenies of the founder of the tiny, nearly fantastical town of Black people who are of the lightest complexion. The two girls are opposite in every way but their looks—Desiree is messy and impulsive; Stella is neat and reserved. At the age of fourteen, they disappeared; the inciting incident is the lynching of their father before their eyes. Having run away to discover themselves and leave their trauma behind, after some time they unceremoniously go their separate ways, both literally and figuratively. Stella vanishes, alone this time, to live her life as a White woman. Desiree ends up meeting and marrying the darkest man imaginable.
Each twin has a daughter that is a reflection of their respective sister. Jude, who looks nothing like her mother Desiree, moves back to Mallard with her mother (to escape the abuse of her father) and is forced to brace herself against a world that will never fully accept her because she is so dark skinned. Stella’s daughter Kennedy is spoiled and lives a life of endless privilege thanks to her father’s wealth and her mother’s determination to maintain her stolen lifestyle—an attempt to regain what could have been their inheritance were it not for an ancestor’s bad luck.
The easiest comparison to make of Bennett’s work is to Nella Larsen’s Passing, a text canonized as a prime example of African American women’s literature and particularly as a product of the Harlem Renaissance. There are many similarities: the disappearance and reappearance of a Black woman turned White, resentment and self-hatred of Blackness within Black circles, the necessity of “psychic duality” or “masks” in order to survive and operate within society’s Black and White dynamic, etc. The inclusion of the Jude and Kennedy characters add a pulpy layer to The Vanishing Half that separates the two novels.
Bennett stands on her own by making the two sparring partners twins. Their internal struggles literally become external as they become at odds and ultimately cause Stella to leave Desiree behind to seek solace outside of her Blackness. The blood connection makes their relationship all the more painful to lose and regain—their connection is fractured and, unbeknownst to them, is reestablished with the birth of their respective daughters who become surrogate sisters. Each is thrust back into battle with their fears. Jude would rather accept her fate and settle rather than becoming more inquisitive and explore more of life like her mother. Kennedy disappoints Stella constantly by her lack of commitment and their relationship suffers because of its resemblance to that of the twins. Each pair also learns the depth of deception necessary to cause such a fracture and the themes of colorism, family, and fear are explored more thoroughly because there are four main points of view that take up the task.
The core of the story, however, lay with the twins: Stella and her fear of exposure and Desiree with her fear of captivity—their collective fear of nonexistence. Bennett so aptly illustrates the internal struggle of each here:
“Sometimes being a twin had felt like living with another version of yourself. That person existed for everyone, probably, an alternative self that lived only in the mind. But hers was real. Stella rolled over in bed each morning and looked into her eyes. Other times it felt like living with a foreigner. Why are you not more like me? she’d think, glancing over at Desiree. How did I become me and you become you? Maybe she was only quiet because Desiree was not. Maybe they’d spent their lives together modulating each other, making up for what the other lacked. Like how at their father’s funeral, Stella barely spoke, and when someone asked her a question, Desiree answered instead. At first it unnerved Stella, a person speaking to her and Desiree responding. Like throwing her own voice. But soon she felt comfortable disappearing. You could say nothing and, in your nothingness, feel free.“
The language so beautifully captures the sentiment of Stella’s multidimensional conflicts that the passage could be from either sister’s point of view and still be true. No matter how hard they try, they cannot escape themselves or their past and the journey to that realization is not for the faint of heart, nor is it to be missed by anyone whose heart beats for a story about being honest with yourself.
The Vanishing Half
By Brit Bennett
Published June 2, 2020