Appealing to Who We Are

There is always that part of us that wants to escape, whether physically, spiritually, or virtually. Behind every yearning to runaway is a bevy of reasons. Most of us long to move on and discover new places or uncharted territories. Some of us wants to break free from the shackles that hold us to the ground. There are also those among us who want to forget a traumatic past, episode or experience. Whether they manifest or not, it cannot be denied that there are parts of us which are longing to be unleashed.

Twi sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes were born to a poor African-American family in the Deep South community of Mallard, Louisiana. When they were still young, they witnessed the murder of their father. This left their mother Adele to raise them. Shortly after reaching the age of sixteen, the sisters, inseparable, ran away from their mother, and their community. Shortly after settling in New Orleans, Stella left her sister, Desiree, to fend for her own.

Alone and feeling dejected, Desiree moved to Washington D.C. where she fell in love with a man. She thought he was the man of her dreams and they ended up getting married. In the ensuing events, Desiree was left no choice but to flee and return to her birthplace, now with a child in tow, Jude who was then eight-years-old. Despite starting her life anew, there is a part of Desiree that still longs for that missing piece that once made her feel whole. To fill the void, she tried to look for her other half for years.

“A town always looked different once you’d returned, like a house where all the furniture had shifted three inches. You wouldn’t mistake it for a stranger’s house but you’d keeping banging your shins on the table corners.”

~ Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half

In an unexpected twist of events, the two strands would converge again but through the main characters’ offspring – Desiree’s daughter Jude and Stella’s daughter Kennedy. It was a reunion Bennett built brick by brick using sturdy pieces from her lush prose. How would this unexpected reunion unfold? How would the missing pieces be filled in? How will this reunion alter their lives? Will Stella and Kennedy welcome and embrace Desiree and Jude?

Brit Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half is a multilayered narrative that covers a vast ground and examines a plethora of timely and seminal themes and subjects. The first layer of the narrative that unwraps as the story moves forward is that of a multigenerational family saga revolving around the lives and stories of Desiree and Stella, and their daughters, Jude and Kennedy. These four individual strands make up the entire frame of the story.

Apart from being a family saga, the novel is an American Deep South novel that tackled familiar but relevant themes surrounding ethnicity, discrimination, white privilege, and racism. The novel explored largely the definitions of identity and acceptance. The novel appeals to who we truly are deep inside. Bennett depicted how we would like to be perceived and received by a society that reeks of prejudice, discrimination, and hypocrisy.

However, it is no ordinary “Deep South” novel. Bennett adds her personal touch and introduces to the readers to a term that is rarely and directly referenced in fiction – the sociological concept of “passing”. Passing is defined as the ability of an individual to successfully cross over from one culture, race, social class, gender, sexual orientation, and/or disability to another. Bennett managed to incorporate two distinct facets of passing through her characters. However, passing, as portrayed in a societal setup loomed above the other and was extensively repeated all throughout the narrative. In exploring the concept of “passing”, Bennett underscored the danger of the value we place on “whiteness” or “fair skin”.

“A body could be labeled but a person couldn’t, and the difference between the two depended on that muscle in your chest. That beloved organ, not sentient, not aware, not feeling, just pumping along, keeping you alive.”

~ Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half

Behind the story is an ugly reality: the novel underlined the extent non-white individuals has to go through to be afforded the same opportunity and acceptance as their peers. The truth is that we yearn for acceptance. In our struggle, we try to capitalize on every opportunity throw our way. But then internal conflicts arise. How far are we willing to go to erase a past we never wanted? How many lies are we going to conjure to cut off our links to our roots? Above all the lies and deceptions we tell ourselves, the truth will always surface. As the characters would later learn, we cannot truly escape history and memory as we are all linked by invisible threads. The challenges, anxieties, and the struggles inherent in such a setup was vividly captured by Bennett.

Whilst the events in the story happened from 1950s to early 1990s, Bennett was able to tackled a myriad of timely and seminal subjects. From the primary subject, the novel diverged into other related subjects such as transgender, homosexuality and homosexual relationships. The novel also portrayed the issue on segregation that has long been the source of discomfort for the white population. However, the exploration of this relevant subject was casual and predictable. Bennett took the classic and formulaic approach. She also tried to dip her fingers into female empowerment but it was soon forgotten as soon as it was introduced. Bennett was surely getting into something but lost it halfway through the story.

The Vanishing Half is a character-centric narrative. It relied heavily on the individuality of the characters, from their complexities, to their tendencies, to their vulnerabilities. Desiree, Stella, Jude, and Kennedy were each carefully crafted to project various philosophies and ideals. The sisters are each other’s antithesis. Whilst Stella was bookish, Desiree was spirited. Stella was also dependent on her headstrong sister. Their development and growth as the story moved forward gave the novel another facet, that of a coming-of-age.

Each character had her own crosses to carry but the story also permeated with hope. Jude, despite the discrimination she had to deal with, fought for her dream and worked hard to pursue her medical degree. Kennedy, a failed actress, used her failure to reinvent herself. Desiree, the victim of domestic abuse, found her safe haven in the place she tried to run away from. Stella, who built her life on a pack of lies, soon made amends with her past, albeit not entirely.

“That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone. That was what had captured her in the charm shop, all those years ago. Then adulthood came, your choices solidifying, and you realize that everything you are had been set in motion years before. The rest was aftermath.”

~ Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half

What brought these wonderful elements together was Bennett’s writing. She had a breathtaking prose. It was lush and descriptive, managing to fully capture important junctures and scenes with precision. She did, however, fumble at the start as the story did take time to take flight. She took her time in laying out the literary landscape and preparing it for the “big reveal” later in the story. Once the story took off, it was on a roll and rarely looked back.

The Vanishing Half is a brave endeavor and its voice resonates, especially in a period when movements like Black Lives Matter dominate the headlines. However, it never fully soared. Once it reached its apex, the story was stuck on some plateau. The text was waiting to soar ever higher but it never did. Despite this, props to Bennett for exploring a subject that is, although ubiquitous, is foreign to many whilst grounding it to universal themes. The exploration of these subjects, at times, was a little contrived. It reaches a certain point but never percolates to its full potential. Bennett’s prose, however, is commendable.

Rating

68%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 12%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half fell under the radar when I was researching for books to include in my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward List. However, after several positive reviews of the book, I ultimately made the decision to read it. Well, it was interesting as it introduced a new concept, that of “passing” which, although is ubiquitous, is rarely overtly explored in literature. The novel took time to develop; Bennett took her time in laying out the structure and pieces of her narrative. She took so much time that when the revelations came in the second half, it felt a little rushed. For me, the novel never really took off. It just lingered on the surface but never really percolated. I guess I am wishing she explored the subjects more. It was lacking in many ways but it was still a good read.

Book Specs

Author: Brit Bennett
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 343
Genre: Family Saga, Coming-of-Age

Synopsis

The Vignes sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at the age of sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything, including their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. Across the country, the other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, although separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, The Vanishing Half is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of race, gender and identity, and the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s desires and expectations.

About the Author

Brit Bennett was born and raised in Oceanside, California. She received an undergraduate degree in English from Stanford University. She earned her MFA in Fiction at the University of Michigan.

Bennett already made headways while still studying at the University of Michigan. Her 2014 essay for Jezebel blog,  I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People piqued the interest of many. She also won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. Post-university, she has published a score of nonfiction essays which were featured in prestigious publications such as The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and The Paris Review.

In 2016, Bennett published her debut novel, The Mother, to critical acclaim. For her spectacular debut, she listed in the National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” list of promising debut novelists. Four years after her successful debut, she published her second novel, The Vanishing Half, to the same critical acclaim. The book was included by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2020.