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If you have spent any time at all on Twitter during the last couple of weeks, then it is probable that you have seen discussion and pictures popping up of The Vanishing Half, recently published it has already become a New York Times bestseller. I suppose there is a danger of that dreaded word hype being bandied about – well sometimes a hype is created for a reason. In the current climate of the #Blacklivesmatter protests and the continuing and very vital conversation about what it is to be black in this country and in the US – it is a book which is being read far and wide. As a novel though it is very far from just being a book we should read, an issues book to be discussed in book groups – The Vanishing Half is a brilliantly compelling read – it’s a story of race, of colour, exploring the American history of ‘passing.’ However, it is also a story of belonging – of finding your place in the world. Moving from the 1950s to the 1990s – from Louisiana to California and New York – it is a pacey, thought provoking novel that becomes increasingly hard to put down. 

Twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes grew up in the (fictional) town of Mallard in Louisiana – a town of very light skinned black people. The town appeared on no maps – outside of the immediate area it might well not exist. Marrying only from within the town, the people have kept their colour light – and are proud to have done so – looking down on those with darker skins. In the mid-1950s, the sixteen year old sisters decide to run away together to New Orleans away from the colour conscious atmosphere they grew up in.

“It was a strange town. Mallard, named after the ring-necked ducks living in the rice fields and marshes. A town that, like any other, was more idea than place. The idea arrived to Alphonse Decuir in 1848, as he stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place.”

As the novel opens fourteen years have passed since Desiree and Stella disappeared – and Desiree is back. With her she brings her daughter Jude – a dark skinned little girl who takes after her father. Desiree has lost sight of her sister, left her abusive husband, and come home. She moves in with her mother – enrols her daughter in school and takes a job at the local diner. Jude suffers from being the only really dark skinned child at school – no birthday party invites – no friends. Despite the town thinking Desiree won’t stay, she does – taking up with Early Jones; a man she knew in her teens – who works away a lot, finding people. However, there is one person Early seems unable to find – Stella – because years earlier, when she was living with her sister in New Orleans Stella made the decision to ‘pass over’ to live the rest of her life as a white woman. There are some sharp reminders of why Stella made the decision that she did. Memories of violence, of terrible things done when she and her sister were small and hid in a cupboard.

“You were supposed to be safe in Mallard—that strange, separate town—hidden amongst your own. But even here, where nobody married dark, you were still colored and that meant that white men could kill you for refusing to die. The Vignes twins were reminders of this, tiny girls in funeral dresses who grew up without a daddy because white men decided that it would be so.”

Jude grows up – and goes to college in California – it is 1978 – and here she meets Reese – a trans man – who she comes to love for himself, and Barry a drag queen two nights a month. With these beautifully portrayed characters the author explores how it feels to live outside of the role assigned to you at birth. It adds another layer to an already wonderful story of family and relationships.

Stella’s life in the meantime has been very different. Married to a man whose secretary she was – and who is not aware of her true heritage – she lives in a gracious white neighbourhood that have risen up in horror that a black family are buying a house on the street.

Stella is terrified the new neighbours will see in her everything she has been trying to hide. Her relationship with this neighbour becomes complex and fraught with emotional difficulties. Stella has a daughter, Kennedy, who she is very ambitious for – but whose only wish is to be an actress. There is a terrible, poignant sense that Stella has never been really happy, really comfortable in the life that she chose – yet there are some lies I suppose which have to be told forever – certainly, that is what Stella feels. Despite the success that comes to her in middle age – she is lonely, without her sister, her mother, and the world she grew up in – Stella lives in a place she feels isn’t hers.

“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Brit Bennett weaves together the stories of Desiree, Stella, Jude and Kennedy in a brilliantly compelling way. In order for the narrative to work there are a few quite big coincidences, but amazing things can happen!

I hope you can tell, I really loved this book the characters are drawn so well – and there are some gorgeous tender moments between several of them. Bennett clearly understands mothers and daughters well too – another strand to the narrative I enjoyed. All in all – utterly compelling and completely immersive – I defy anyone not to read this quickly – perhaps staying up late in the process.

Reading this novel, I couldn’t help but remember the novella Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen – written and set in a much earlier period – which I am tempted to dig out and re-read.  

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