THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half tells the story of identical twins Desiree and Stella, Black girls with very light skin who grow up in a small Louisiana town called Mallard. While they were once inseparable in childhood, as adults they take very different paths — they move away from Mallard at a young age and Desiree has a daughter with a Black man, while Stella passes as white to take a secretary job, then cuts off contact from her family and spends the rest of her life hiding her true heritage from her husband and child (until, of course, a surprise encounter brings everything to a head).
I think this book does a laudable job at its commentary on racial identity; the problem is, I don’t think it really has anything else going for it. The characters felt underdeveloped, the writing itself was mediocre, huge plot points often hinged on coincidences in a way that didn’t feel sufficiently self-conscious (the coincidences were acknowledged by the narrative, but in a way that felt to me less like ‘I am playing with fate as a deliberate thematic construct’ and more like ‘haha whoops this coincidence is a bit silly, I’m going to comment on how silly it is before anyone else can’), and every time you finally got settled into a particular narrative, the book would lurch ahead in time at nonsensical moments.
I just got the impression that Bennett was trying to do too much — I think that if you isolate this novel’s core conceit, it could have made for a stunning novella or short story. For a novel, it was juggling too many elements and dropping balls left and right. For example, Desiree’s daughter has a trans partner, and while I assume that this detail was included to frame this story through different axes of oppression, his particular story and identity ultimately felt rather under-examined. When I compare this to something like its fellow Women’s Prize shortlister Transcendent Kingdom which tackles a broad spectrum of topics and coheres them into a single narrative with finesse, The Vanishing Half just feels like a flimsy shadow of what it’s trying to be.
All that said, I think this book absolutely does deserve its large readership, as it examines race through the very specific lens of colorism which I think is largely underrepresented in literature, and I’m glad to have read this. I’m glad that it has touched so many readers. I can’t really bring myself to give it a rating under 3 stars, because I don’t think it deserves that — and I do think its thoughtful approach to racial identity is worth a lot. I just don’t think it’s a particularly well-constructed novel, and I came away from it feeling frustrated and underwhelmed.