Riverhead Books, 352 pages, $27 (c2020)
This is not a mystery, but it is one of the best books I’ve read over the last year or two. Brit Bennett has created a strong story about identity and what it is that makes or breaks a person.
There is a town in Louisiana called Mallard. If you opened a map, there wouldn’t be a reference to the town in that map. If you asked people where it is, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. And it wouldn’t be just because the town is small; it also would be because it’s the sort of town where if you don’t need to know about it, then you don’t get to know about it.
Have you read the “Blanche White” series by Barbara Neely? In one of the books, Neely writes about the different shades of black, how lighter-shaded Blacks are often prejudiced against darker-shaded Blacks: the unwritten caste system. Mallard is a town that was created as a refuge for the lighter-skinned Blacks, the lighter the better. However, Mallard has a dark history, too.
Adele Vignes has twin daughters, Desiree and Stella. One night in Mallard white men came and took Adele’s husband, Desiree and Stella’s father. They hanged him. It made quite an impression on the young girls and broke Adele’s spirit. Nevertheless, Adele worked to try to give her daughters opportunities. But Desiree was high-spirited and got into mischief. When they were sixteen, Desiree convinced her sister to run away with her.
In New Orleans, the twins struggled but managed to slowly lift themselves up. Adele never gave up hoping her daughters would return. Away from home, it was a revelation to the twins when they were mistaken for white girls. After having spent years forging their identities as Black women with superior light skin in Mallard, suddenly there was a very different way of looking at the world open to them.
“The Vanishing Half” follows Desiree and Stella together until New Orleans. When Stella disappears one day, it is Desiree who becomes the main focus. Who is she without Stella, she wonders. Part of her is missing. Desiree’s life continues down a better path: She marries a man who can create the world she often has wished for: a comfortable home, a child of her own. Then the man proves to be a brute; he beats and belittles her. Desiree takes her daughter and runs.
What makes Bennett’s book so compelling is that other stories are linked through the story of the twins. When she's older, Jude, Desiree’s daughter, has some exploring of her own to do. She meets Reese who expands her definition of love. She meets Kennedy who defines the word “lost.”
“The Vanishing Half” covers years in the lives of the main characters. The girls’/women’s search for identity is complicated by their whiteness or their blackness, the change in cultural acceptance in different cities in the U.S., the love and stubbornness of family ties.
I highly recommend this book.