The Vignes twins are descendants of the founder of Mallard, a small, unmapped town in Louisiana. Alphonse Decuir, a formerly enslaved, biracial man now in possession of his father’s land, wanted to build a place for people “who would never be accepted as white”. His vision was that by producing children who had lighter skin than the previous generation, they would become more “perfect”. Several generations later, Stella and Desiree Vignes live in a town for light-skinned Black people only, with a population that is extremely racist and obsessed with “lightness”.
In 1968, when they are sixteen, the twins are forced to leave school to help their mother pay the bills. For different reasons, they decide to flee to New Orleans and assuage their guilt by planning to make enough money to be able to help their mother. But one year into their new city life, Stella suddenly leaves without saying goodbye and Desiree finds herself alone for the first time in her life. From then on, the twins take very different paths. In the first few pages of the novel we meet Desiree, fleeing from a husband who beats her and returning to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter, June.
Later, we come to find out why and how Stella left her sister. She decided she would shed her past and “pass” for white. At first she does this to be able to get into places that were forbidden or unwelcoming to Black people, and then to get a job as a secretary. She then begins to see possibilities that she wouldn’t otherwise have open up to her. Her chief motivation, however, is a traumatic event she witnessed as a child. Throughout the novel, there is a theme of the individual vs the community: is shedding your heritage selfish, or self-preservation? But most importantly, we see the toll that trying to create a new self can take on someone. Approaching the theme of race through the concept of ‘passing over’ exposes not only racist attitudes and institutions, but also how society can make racialized people second-guess and police their actions and identities to be safe or be afforded rights and opportunities that white people enjoy without giving their privilege a second thought.
Besides the twins, we eventually get to know their daughters and the impact their mothers’ decisions have had in their lives: June, a dark-skinned woman from a small town who goes to a top university on a track scholarship, and Stella’s daughter Kennedy, a blond, very white-looking woman who has no idea that her mother is part Black. This last mother-daughter relationship is particularly fraught – Kennedy knows nothing about her mother, and Stella has to watch her daughter waste opportunities that she never had growing up.
Brit Bennett handles a complex plot expertly – she orchestrates meetings and absences between characters particularly well, weaving their lives together convincingly, no matter how disconnected they may seem. Coincidences play a big part, but that’s true of most plot-led novels so suspending disbelief is not necessarily an issue here. What didn’t work so well for me was my experience of the characters. We understand everyone’s motivations and why they are the way they are, to a degree that much of the novel is profoundly upsetting; but in terms of technique, for me that understanding is gained too easily. The story is over-explained; the omniscient narrator somehow knows too much, and the characters know themselves too well, not allowing the reader to figure anything out for ourselves. The Vanishing Half is very accessible and I understand why it has become so popular and loved – it has a powerful premise and characters that you get to know well. But I came out of it with a sense that I know about them, as if the story were a summary of their lives. We don’t spend any extensive time ‘watching’ anyone in particular, and I usually enjoy longer, more detailed scenes that explore what is left unspoken, so this is just a preference thing.
The Vanishing Half will be adapted into an HBO limited series which I am really looking forward to: without (I’m assuming) a verbose narrator, I think these incredibly interesting characters will be able to show themselves more fully.