Set in a fictional town in Louisiana, Mallard, Britt Bennett's The Vanishing Half follows the lives of two 'creamy skinned, hazel eyed' twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes as they navigate the complexity of racial identity in 20th century America.
The Vignes twin sisters grew up in a small, southern, uniquely light-skinned black community. So pale-skinned, in fact, that some are able to pass as white. Although they are physically identical, 'two halves of a whole'; where Stella is quietly brilliant Desiree is confident and outspoken. They are brought up by their mother after their father is killed in a racist attack and, after being made to leave school to earn money as housemaids at sixteen, decide to run away to New Orleans.
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It is here that their relationship begins to fracture, as 'they no longer seemed like one body split in two, but two bodies poured into one, each pulling their own way' and Stella suddenly disappears. She is only found years later, pretending to be white in the North in order to gain safety and economic stability during an age of segregation, reiterating the extent to which these privileges were - and still are - denied to people of colour. As Stella lives a sheltered, but ultimately lonely, existence revolving around country clubs and sunny mornings spent floating in the pool, Desiree returns to Mallard to live with her aging mother and work in the local diner. But whose life is truly more fulfilled?
This is the central question explored by the novel. The narrative interweaves a multitude of stories within one family across five decades, delving into identity, liminality, love, and society, giving the reader the chance to experience the impact of race issues upon America across generations. The rich, moving prose and the sensitive portrayal of each individual character means that the Vanishing Half isn't just a fascinating exploration into issues that remain pertinent today, but also an engrossing read from start to finish.
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