Between Black and White: Review of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half. Brit Bennett. Riverhead Books, 2020.
In the sociological sense, “passing” is a deceptively simple term for a complex concept. Passing—the ability of an individual to be regarded as a member of an identity group or category distinct from their own, whether it be race, caste, religion, gender, state of disability, or sexual orientation—is a loaded term with a loaded meaning. Calling into question the constructedness and divisiveness of human society, passing also underpins the paranoia that goes hand in hand with the fear of being discovered, of being accused of fraud, and of losing sight of who you really are. The complex and heady mix of paranoia, deception, and identity crisis that constitute passing is at the very heart of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. The novel dives into the lives of Desiree and Stella Vignes, light-skinned, mixed-race, identical twins, and follows the diverging paths their lives take once Stella decides to pass as white.
Early on, The Vanishing Half paints the picture of Mallard, Louisiana as a town for people “who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.” Obsessed with the lightness of skin, every Mallardian aspires to marry lighter than themselves, and view the dark-skinned folks with disdain. Desiree, seemingly the more ambitious twin, wants nothing to do with this town, its hypocrisy, and its obsession with skin color. Stella, on the other hand, mainly longs to get away from her employer and his unwelcome hands.
Running away from their mother, Mallard, and all things familiar, the Vignes twins eventually find themselves in New Orleans and take up jobs to support themselves. When Stella interviews for the position of secretary to a marketing executive, the interviewer mistakes her as white, and Stella surprises herself by going along with the misperception, marvelling at how “easy” it is to pass as white. When it comes time for Stella to choose between her twin and her boss, a charming white man who asks to marry her, Stella’s choice has great repercussions for her and those close to her.
As the narrative progresses, Bennett paints an intricate portrait of the lives of Stella and Desiree and their two now-adult daughters. Stella, having lived as a dignified white lady for many years, complete with her husband and suburban home, domestic staff, and all the privileges whiteness brings, is terribly, utterly alone in her silent suffering and fear. Far from being easy, passing has made Stella realise that her life is an empty performance, and she struggles to remember who she is beyond a “mulatto” faking her way into the world of white folks. Plagued by the fear of being discovered as not-white, Stella’s paranoia slowly descends into a form of monomania that taints her relationship with daughter Kennedy, who finds her mother aloof, cold, and unwilling to reveal anything about her family or history. The question who are you? is never far from Kennedy’s mind, and, with no information forthcoming from Stella, the two grow increasingly estranged.
In contrast, Desiree returns to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude, after running away from her abusive husband. Desiree and Jude share a closeness that Stella and Kennedy never attain, with Jude knowing everything about her mother, including the hole Stella left behind when she abandoned Desiree. While pursuing further education and developing a relationship with her partner, Reese, who experiences a gender-identity crisis, Jude accidentally runs into Kennedy and Stella. This fateful encounter sets in motion events that have ramifications for the entire Vignes family.
Bennett paints a wonderful and devastatingly real picture of the painful dissimilarities that drive two so similar twins apart, leading each down paths so different as to characterize the racial divide of the twentieth century. Potentially, just being a twin casts a shadow on the project of figuring out your identity. Stella’s passing separates her two halves utterly, extending that dark shadow and threatening to swallow her real persona before spitting out a brand-new Stella with her newly acquired whiteness. The juxtaposition of Stella’s confusion with Jude’s certainty—about her mother and where they stand as a collective mother-daughter unit—casts the cost of Stella’s choice in stark relief. While the Vignes family’s tribulations are certainly in the spotlight, the audience also learns of Reese’s turmoil concerning their gender-identity, a different perspective on belonging and identity that resonates with the depths of disorientation, dread, and obsession mapped by the four key characters of the novel.Questions of race and skin color not only affect our dealings with society at large, but also our inner spirits, our sense of self. The Vanishing Half is a window into the lives of characters struggling with these questions—downtrodden individuals struggling to understand an unjust society, and themselves, even as they try to find a place in it. Bennett’s evocative prose and depiction of slice-of-life scenes in these incredible circumstances tug at the reader’s heartstrings and beg them to understand the experiences, pains, and actions of the women in the story.
Ashumi Shah (she/her) is a PhD candidate at the University of Augsburg, Germany. As part of her PhD dissertation, she analyses the characteristics of participatory culture and re-conceptualizes audience responses to new media practices and texts. When she is not examining science fiction and fantasy fandoms for her research, she is either watching Doctor Who or attempting (and failing) to catch-up with her Goodreads TBR list. Aiming to “leisure-read” at least 52 books in a year, Ashumi particularly loves fiction featuring strong female characters and dark/gothic motifs. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or via Instagram at @ashumi_shah.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in September 2020; the author is an ARB editor. No review copy was arranged by ARB.