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THE VANISHING HALF

Emma Firth reviews Brit Bennett’s bestselling novel The Vanishing Half

15.07.2020

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My favourite books are the ones you find difficult to describe, to compare to another, to neatly package under the umbrella of one genre. Some people loathe this. C’mon, pitch it, what makes it so special? For me, this multi-layered-ness is the secret elixir to any great story.

On the surface, The Vanishing Half is an epic narrative about a pair of light-skinned African American twins, Desiree and Stella Vignes who, at 16-years-old, flee their small Louisiana town searching for a freer life. After settling briefly in New Orleans, they separate from one another, living in parallel worlds. One black and one white.

Over the course of decades - from the 1950s through to the 1980s - their diverging paths play out on the page, and a meandering of melodrama ensues in ways you could never possibly predict.

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At its core, Brit Bennett’s masterful novel explores the hidden depths of self. The secrets and trauma that lie deep within, and envelope, us. Because things are never quite what they seem - we are forever shapeshifting. Touched by the fractured construction of almost everything: places, relationships, race.

Like Mallard, for instance, the fictional town where the two sisters grew up - subsequently, the heartbeat of this tender passage of time – which is described as “jelly, forever molding around your memories.”

Or Stella, who chose to pass as white, and “wanted Desiree to see how convincingly she played her role, but she was living a performance where there could be no audience. Only a person who knew her real identity would appreciate her acting, and nobody at work could ever know.” A poignant example of the corruptive power of racism; both visible and invisible at the same time.

The story is so unique, and yet this concept of a life lived in double exposure is universal. Are we who we are because of what people perceive us to be? The stories we tell ourselves? There's one scene where Stella asks herself whether she could really open up about "pretending to be someone else", but after a while pretending became reality ("She could tell the truth, she thought, but there was no single truth anymore.") 

We spend so long trying to plug the hole that is our "old self" with new people, new places, an entirely new identity, that we spend our lives split in two. Feeling like we’re always looking for that missing piece of the puzzle. What have I run away from in my life? What am I searching for? Who is the real me? The answer is rarely black and white.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, published by Little, Brown (£14.99), is available to purchase here.

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