As kids growing up in the deep South, two light-skinned Black girls play a game: Desiree Vignes dares her twin sister, Stella, to try hiding in plain sight of white people. When Stella discovers that she can pass without effort, the idea never leaves her that she could claim to be white herself. The sisters at the heart of Brit Bennett’s stunning sophomore novel, The Vanishing Half, were born in Mallard, a small Louisiana town where they come of age in the 1950s and ’60s. The Vignes girls’ entire identities in the community, which is known for being colorstruck—favoring light-skinned Black folk—are shaped by their proximity to whiteness.
The Vanishing Half revolves around the myths it is possible to make from our lives. Put another way, the novel reveals the lengths to which people will go for an easier life—possibly even the life of their dreams. Bennett achieves this by carefully granting us access to the deepest fears of two women who take very different paths and by showing the reach of their decisions on their daughters as well as the other people closest to them.
From the story’s opening, the twins are viewed with a sense of intrigue by the Mallard community—both as individuals and, simply, as twins. That enigmatic quality continues even when it’s revealed where Stella disappears to after she and her sister escape their hometown to live together in New Orleans as young women. When Stella is mistaken for white and hired as a secretary, she vanishes into another life. The novel follows the two sisters and the very different daughters they will bear. Jude is the very dark-skinned result of Desiree’s abusive and doomed marriage. Kennedy is, unbeknownst to her, biracial; her white father was Stella’s boss before the two married and moved the family to Los Angeles.
Years later, when Desiree moves back to Mallard with Jude in tow, fleeing her husband, both mother and child become the subject of intense gossip, as Stella’s disappearance continues to hang over her narrative. Bennett expertly conveys how both Desiree and Stella fumble and triumph in their respective, separate lives, while rendering their children’s narratives fully and clearly as well. Jude, who is set on medical school, can run so fast that she earns a scholarship to UCLA, while Kennedy becomes a wayward actress. Jude finds solace and comfort in her steady love of Reese, a man whose life has also been shaped by trying to free himself from an oppressive past.
The Vanishing Half is seamless and suspenseful. The novel manages to be engrossing and surprisingly apolitical—the latter is particularly notable, as passing typically creates questions of morality or ethics even in 2020. Bennett does not write toward the propriety or impropriety of passing—she does not ask us, through Stella, if it is deceitful to pretend to be white in order to avoid the oppressions and restrictions of Blackness. Instead, Bennett writes about passing as one fraught choice Black people had for circumventing the limitations placed on them. Throughout the book, she shows the impact of those choices, intentional or unintentional, on not just an individual, but also an entire family and community. It is clear throughout The Vanishing Half that sometimes becoming someone different becomes a greater weight to bear than remaining stuck in the destiny of one’s old self.
The result is a novel that reads effortlessly. The characters and stakes are both true to the decades they span and the truths they tell about hiding or passing. There is tremendous, timeless wisdom here about what is lost when we do not allow others to see our real selves and what is found again if we free ourselves from their gaze.