Brit Bennett Splits the Two Worlds
The past shapes the future. This much is undeniable. However, the real question is, to which extent? Most of us end up living our lives without ever really figuring out the degree of control we truly have over our situation; sometimes it seems like all our shortcomings are our own fault, while other times it feels like everything is completely out of our control.
In Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, we take a look at two twin sisters corralled by fate and circumstances, yet striving for their own paths.
The story introduces us to the Vignes twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, living in the town of Mallard with a relatively unusual composition. Though virtually everyone in the town is part-black, being white is still seen as the preferable circumstance. They’re only sixteen years old, but already they’ve had enough of the lot they were given.
Desiree succeeds in persuading Stella to run away together from the town, setting in motion unseen chains of events which promise repercussions way down the line, possibly even decades. Years later, Desiree returns to Mallard with her daughter Jude, while Stella has completely adopted a new life where she passes as a white person.
Though their worlds were separated at a young age and many years have passed, the two sisters’ fates are bound to intertwine time and time again, as both they and their daughters try to find a place for themselves in the so-called land of freedom and opportunity, whether it means accepting their roots or cutting them off completely.
Taking us on a journey from the Deep South of the 1950s to California in the 1990s, we are exposed to a profound portrait of the American soul, and the immense turmoil which lies within.
Paths of Rebellion in The Vanishing Half
The Vanishing Half isn’t exactly an easy to book to classify, being much more akin, in my opinion, to a “slice-of-life” type of work than your traditionally-structured novel.
Rather than placing the brunt of the focus on moving the plot along, Bennett instead chooses to concentrate on the many characters are her disposal, the various choices they make, and the consequences they bring.
In the first part of The Vanishing Half, the main subject which stood out in my eyes was the idea of rebelling against society, and the different ways in which it can be done, as practiced by Desiree and Stella. In their own ways, they rebel against the town of Mallard, but interestingly enough they end up on very different paths, and Bennett explores and attempts to explain both of them.
On one hand, we have Desiree who doubles down on her roots, marries a very dark husband, and returns home with an equally-dark daughter, who obviously won’t have the easiest of times at home.
She knows the battle ahead will be long and difficult, probably outliving her and even her daughter. Nevertheless, we understand her need to take the path of strength and confront the town head-on.
On the other hand, we have Stella who completely abandons her heritage and successfully passes off as a white woman, keeping her real identity a secret from even her own family. We get to understand this line of thinking as well, why some people would prefer to drop their roots and carve their own paths in life.
I was quite taken aback by not only the complexity of these two characters, but most importantly, by the author’s ability to explain their inner worlds down to the finest details and make them believable. Whether or not we agree with the decisions they make and the hopes they have, they are always understandable and never feel jarring or out of place.
Debates Over Determinism
As big of a place as Desiree and Stella occupy in the story, it does span four decades and has us following many additional characters in both women’s lives, including their husbands and their children.
It’s about a whole lot more than challenging racism… in my opinion, it’s all about finding out just how deterministic life is for people of all kinds.
Time and time again we are reminded how many, if not all the characters we meet, have never really had complete free will, which in itself could very well be a mythical concept. In one way or another, they are all bound to not only their own past, but also their family history which largely dictates what lot they are given.
Thankfully, it’s far from being all doom and gloom in regards to this topic, as we consistently see characters chipping away at the invisible chains they were born in, and finding their very own paths through life. Though Desiree and Stella were both born with the same lot, their polar opposite paths attest to this, if anything does.
Though it is a family saga largely centred on women, I found the men characters to be largely wonderful with their own important roles to play.
Too many times, when a saga-type story focuses on one gender, they tend to relegate the other one to a utilitarian background. I was more than happy to see Bennett graciously avoided this pitfall.
While the story definitely doesn’t have all the answers, it sure makes an interesting case for our ability to shape our own lives regardless of what our past might dictate.
The Final Verdict
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is quite a special novel in my opinion, tackling some very complex and heavy themes with true finesse, offering a moving story driven by relatable, understandable and lovable characters, constantly pushing us to think about our own lives.
If you’re looking for a profound work centred on racial identity and the determinism of American life, you will absolutely adore this novel from start to finish.
Brit Bennett is an American writer from Los Angeles whose debut novel titled The Mothers, which came out in 2016, was a New York Times bestseller.
Her second novel published in 2020, titled The Vanishing Half, also earned a spot as a New York Times bestseller, was chosen to be part of the Good Morning America Book Club selection, and had its film rights purchased by HBO.