Paperback review by Anna Hollingsworth
At one point in The Vanishing Half, Kennedy, an overprivileged struggling actress, remembers a childhood shopping trip with her mother: ”I love shopping,” she’d said, almost to herself. “It’s like trying on all the other people you could be.”
A take on postmodern identity is not what you’d expect someone to utter when browsing dresses — in terms of either substance or style — but then in Brit Bennett’s novel very little is what it looks like on the surface.
Identities are at the heart of the story; spanning from the 1950s to the 1990s and from the Deep South to New York and California, the book is a kind of catalogue of people searching for and re-imagining themselves.
Stella and Desiree Vignes are identical twins in 1960s Mallard, a community of light-skinned black people and a town so small that it doesn’t appear on maps. They’re inseparable, but despite the deep bond, their childhood isn’t an easy one: they witness their father being murdered by a gang of white men and later they’re forced to leave school to earn money to help their single mother. This leads to scandal in the community as the twins run away aged 16 to make their own fortune.
That fortune, though, isn’t a shared one. Years later, Desiree returns to Mallard with her daughter Jude and marks of domestic abuse. Stella, meanwhile, is living the high life as a white woman in a wealthy Californian community unbeknownst to anyone from her past. Through Stella’s vanishing act, neither twin knows what has happened to the other, until their daughters’ — one black and the other white — lives intersect unexpectedly and everyone is forced to face where they came from and who their true selves are — or if there even is such a thing.
On the surface, the story can seem overly simplified to the extent of being desperately clichéd: Desiree works as a waitress in a shabby diner with a suitably shabby name, Lou’s Eggs House, as if waitressing was a universal symbol for struggle in life. It’s juxtaposed with an equally worn picture of glamour: Stella as a kind of perfect housewife with a high-flying husband, gossiping neighbours and plenty of gin. After years apart, Desiree sees a photo of Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, without knowing that she is looking at her niece: “The girl just looked like California, or what she imagined it to be: slender and tan and blonde and happy.” In many ways, the threads in the plot are a kind of make-believe California in their superficiality.
However, the surface plot hides whole icebergs of psychological exploration. As simplistic as her prose may seem, Bennett creates a gripping narrative, a kind of thriller of personal mysteries. Stella, the vanishing half, is haunted by the conflict between her past and her self-created identity as a white woman. Even though she has vanished from her former life, those left behind find themselves stuck in the gravitational pull of her secrets: the disappearance of her sister marks Desiree’s relationships, and as a kind of intergenerational trauma, it comes to overshadow Jude’s life, too. It raises the question of whether family ties can ever be severed, or whether trying to do so will make them pin us down even more firmly.
At the same time The Vanishing Half offers powerful social commentary on race, racism and colourism. It highlights the problems of how race is perceived by those in more privileged positions on multiple levels: Stella’s decision to pass as white forces her to adopt racist stances to fit in with her new community and to build barriers around her secrets, while Jude, darker than anyone else in Mallard, finds herself wanting to escape in turn. Kennedy’s attempts to showcase her liberal attitudes and to set herself apart from her mother reveal the issue of how superficial acionts can be, covering up much more deep-seated prejudices.
Bennett makes different worlds collide — Stella’s and Desiree’s, those of the privileged and unprivileged and those of the past and the present. By doing so, she points to lots of uncomfortable truths about perceptions and prejudices and forces the reader to question what identity actually is. All this comes packaged as a spectacularly gripping novel — it’s like dropping the concept of postmodern identity into a shopping trip.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (Dialogue Books, 2021). 978-0349701479, 366pp., paperback.