Review by Emily Fuller
You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.
Black twin sisters Desiree and Stella have skin so pale that can pass for white. They grew-up in a small Southern black community that collectively believe that the lighter their skin is the better their life will be. They have lived their childhood as virtually one identity with a shared consciousness – so much so they decide to run away together to the city at the age of sixteen, hoping to discover lives that will allow them to be whoever they want to be regardless of their skin colour. Fast forward to ten years later, where one sister has fled back to her hometown with her black daughter whilst the other sister builds a new life passing as a white woman married to a white man. Hence, this story embarks on a journey of weaving many strands, perspectives and familial generations together to create an epic exploration of not only a family, but also of America’s history of racial prejudice and passing as white.
This is easily one of the most riveting pieces of fiction I have read this year. After reading her debut novel The Mothers earlier this year, I have become completely obsessed with Bennett’s stylistic choices of writing and also with her characters – and The Vanishing Half is no exception. She has such a refined attention to detail in developing characters that are inherently complex and fragile whom we as readers find ourselves growing more and more invested into the quiet peculiarities of their everyday. What is more is that she utilises the raw intensity of these character portraits to articulate the greater implications of intergenerational trauma, colourism, anti-black racism, white superiority, grief, love and separation. I ached for a lot of these characters as I was thrown into the subtleties and complexities of not just their relationships, but more vitally their hope for cultivating a sense of self that isn’t merely prescribed for them based on their skin colour and upbringing. I particularly loved the rendering of both Stella and Desiree’s daughters and how they bear the weight of their mother’s decisions as well as the trauma that their mothers experienced in their childhood.
I was utterly fascinated yet unnerved by the manifestations of whiteness and white superiority in this novel, with Stella’s characterisation feeling so rich with nuance in relation to the discourses of race in which this novel discusses. Bennett demonstrates how a blatantly traumatic anti-black event – in this instance it is Stella witnessing her father’s lynching – can have an irrevocable impact on the way in which people of colour choose to conceal or minimise their true selves in order to survive in a society of white supremacy. I was compelled to learn just how terrifying and complicated the process of passing as white can be, especially through the intricacies and implications of Stella’s passing as well as her perpetuation of anti-black racism as a passing white woman. Whilst Stella’s own adoption of racism is inexcusable, it is also so remarkable in highlighting the varied and convoluted ways in which racial trauma can externalise itself for people of colour.
The substantial amount of praise that has come from the release of this book is completely warranted, and I cannot recommend this enough for readers who want to diversify their consumption of storytelling with something that is in equal parts both highly educational and captivating. Not only is there so much to unpack and engage with in terms of racial discourse and dialogue, it is a timely piece that is written with fierce poignancy about family, grief, identity and loneliness – all of which have the capacity to be both extraordinary and mundane in the ebb and flow of the everyday.