The story begins with the return of one half of a pair of twins to her small hometown in Louisiana. The Vignes girls, as identical in appearance as they are opposite in character, begin inseparable and end worlds apart. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half tells the strange story of their lives, and those of their daughters.
The Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, begin life in Mallard, a town founded by their ancestor Alphonse Decuir in 1848 on land he inherited from a father who once owned him. Born light-skinned, Alphonse hoped to make Mallard a “third place”, a home for people like him “who would never be accepted as white, but refused to be treated like N***oes” (5). Mallard’s origin story sets the tone for the novel’s negotiation of the meanings ascribed to colour and race: their burdens, their privileges; the significance of their consequences in the face of their absurd arbitrariness.
In Mallard, lightness becomes a fetish. Its inhabitants aspire to lightness, to marry light to beget light children. Made claustrophobic by its small-town ways, the Vignes girls run away to New Orleans, where Stella realises the currency of her own ‘lightness’ when she manages to get a secretarial job by ‘passing’ for white. The glimpse into this world she gets leads her to abandon her sister, follow her white boss, soon to be her white husband, and live her life as a white woman. Together they have a blonde daughter, Kennedy, raised in riches and spoilt rotten.
Desiree, mourning the loss of her sister, falls in love with and marries the darkest man she can find. They too have a daughter, Jude, repeatedly described as the darkest human anyone has ever seen. When Desiree returns to Mallard, fleeing a husband who has turned violent, Jude will never be fully accepted in the small town that venerates lightness.
Bennett has the diverging paths of these four women cross artfully, almost haphazardly, such that it sometimes barely seems orchestrated by an author’s hand. There is a certain sense of inevitability that the twins, surely, will find each other again – but what the narrative gives in these terms is ultimately anti-climactic. Perhaps it is precisely in its denial of some grand catharsis that the novel seems closest to life. Covering as it does several widely different scenes, places, people, and times, the book is rich, textured and varied in what it offers. It includes the experiences of Reece, born Therese; of Barry who goes on stage as Bianca; of the Walkers who move into an otherwise all-white neighbourhood in the 1960s. Their stories offer glimpses into experiences of buying testosterone illegally, into the AIDS pandemic as it hit queer culture in Los Angeles in the 80s, into the entrenched culture of affluent suburban racism. While I couldn’t shake the feeling that the book wasn’t quite everything it might have been, in my reading, Bennett’s talent is evident in her facility for character. Each of the four women around whom the narrative centres is so distinct, even as certain similarities resonate through them. But even more than this, it was the ‘side’ characters who were perhaps my favourite of the novel’s facets. They were barely side characters, because they always seemed capable of leaping into three-dimensions to lead their own wilful lives. The Vanishing Half is well worth a read: for the experiences it gives representation to; for the negotiation of race and colourism it stages; and for the wonderfully nuanced characters it creates.