The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.

I’m on a roll: here’s yet another book that threatened to keep me up all night. When I finished reading this novel, I went immediately to buy Brit Bennett’s first book, The Mothers. So far there are just the two; I hope she’s writing right this minute.

The Vanishing Half begins in a curious town called Mallard in Louisiana, just two hours west of New Orleans, founded by a man whose father once owned him and whose mother hated his lightness. “He’d married a mulatto even lighter than himself. She was pregnant then [1848, when he thought up the town] with their first child, and he imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the once before.” And so Mallard, “a town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place.”

This colorism suffuses the novel, which is about family and secrets and the identities we inherit and choose for ourselves and those we cannot, and so much more, but always about race and color too. From that founder, generations later, are descended a pair of girl twins who watch their daddy get lynched and then run away from Mallard to New Orleans, where they part ways. One lives her life as a Black woman, and eventually returns to Mallard with a child “blueblack… like she flown direct from Africa.” The other crosses over, and becomes White.

You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.

Usually I get nervous when I read about ‘multigenerational sagas’ that I’m looking at a 500+ page book. This one is just 343 in my hardback edition, but does span generations – chiefly the twins and their daughters – and the country, from Louisiana to Hollywood to New York City, with other brief stopovers. It went by quickly (again, I had to force myself to sleep and finish it on day two). And yet it feels enormous. I’ve traveled so far, I feel like, with these women (centrally) and men. The plot centers on problems of race and of colorism within the Black community, but it also handles gender, sexuality, class, art, personal agency, and especially and in several forms, questions about family and love and hurting those we love, keeping secrets (as a form of love and wounding), and those questions about chosen identities (gender as well as race). I do love these Big Questions. But Bennett is also astonishing at plot, scene, and character – there are so many characters here whose stories, even briefly, captivate. I mourn closing this book (which is why I instantly ordered Bennett’s other one). Don’t even wait: do yourself a favor and get into The Vanishing Half, if you haven’t already. I wish I could read it again for the first time.


Rating: 9 worn calculus textbooks.

One Response

  1. […] was such a treat to return to the revelatory writing of Brit Bennett with this one – I read The Vanishing Half first but this one was earlier, her debut. The two novels definitely feel like they come from the […]

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