The Bookshelf

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett



Fourth Estate/Billy Ferguson

Bestselling author Brit Bennet’s second novel, “The Vanishing Half,” has proven itself to be a compelling and timely tale about the intricacies of race and identity, while exploring the possibilities of rebirth and homecoming in rural America.

The book begins in 1940s Mallard, Louisiana — a town so small the inhabitants boast to outsiders that it’s impossible to locate on a map. The people who live there are overbearing and nosy, valuing lightness of skin over all else. Growing up in this small town, two Black twin sisters with different skin tones, Desiree and Stella Vignes, were seen more as one person than two.

As the girls grow older, they run away together in search of new lives — which they find, but soon realize that these new lives don’t include each other.

Bennet explores the relationship between predestination and personal choice through the twins. Their story leads the reader to consider just how much of our lives we have control over, and how much is predetermined by the circumstances of our birth.

Stella and Desiree make drastically different choices, leading them to become entirely different people. Desiree marries a Black man and raises a Black child, eventually returning to Mallard with her daughter, Jude. Stella “passes over” into whiteness, marrying a rich man and chooses to never address her own racial identity, nor her past family.

The book details the consequences of these choices and how they affect not only their own futures but the futures of their daughters, Jude and Kennedy. The sisters’ lives take on entirely different shapes but connections between the two sides of the estranged family are threaded throughout the book, dancing around each other with a compelling sense of inevitability.

Bennet plays with the audience’s perception of what is separate and what is connected through the content of the story as well as through stylistic choices. Most notably, while each chapter shifts which character is in focus, the narrator never changes — there is no shift in the style of prose, nor difference in the tone of the narrator. Whether we’re reading about Stella, Desiree, their daughters or even Desiree’s boyfriend, Early, we’re reading it through the eyes of the same narrator, creating a thread of familiarity and a sense of connection that defines the book. 

Even the supporting characters are complex and diverse, giving the story the sort of depth that makes it hard to pull away from. 

In “The Vanishing Half,” questions of identity, destiny and family are seamlessly woven into a story about race, class and gender. Bennett has created a timeless story that is complex and breathtaking from beginning to end.