Some time ago a Black friend of mine told me that when he went to church as a child, the light-skinned people sat on one side of the aisle and the dark skinned people sat on the other. He was speaking of a time about 50 years ago in Philadelphia. What?? I was floored. Since that time I’ve had a number of conversations with other Black friends about being the darkest sibling or the lightest sibling, about a grandparent’s reaction to marrying someone darker, and of course about the texture and color of hair—what constitutes “good hair.” These conversations prepared me for the town of Mallard, the core setting of Brit Bennett’s book, The Vanishing Half.
The enduring characteristic of Mallard is that, by design, all of its “colored” residents are very light, lighter with each generation, “like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream.” In that town, in 1938, twin girls are born, Desiree and Stella Vignes, with “creamy skin, hazel eyes, and wavy hair.” Both restless for different reasons, the girls run away to New Orleans when they are sixteen. On the second page of the book, we find out that a year later, “the twins scattered, their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.” Here is the inciting incident of The Vanishing Half, an event that roils three generations.
As you may gather from the examples given above, this is a beautifully written book, the language stunning. The dialogue flows, with the speech of some of the characters rooted in dialect, but delivered in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. Structurally, there is a lot of shifting around in time, but it’s handled well, puzzle pieces fitting together as the book moves along.
The separation of twins is inherently a charged event; the how and why it happens make it particularly fraught here. It is 1955 in Louisiana, and that world’s limitations for Black people are made very clear by the scenes Bennett creates. Doors are open for a pretty young woman who can write “white” on a job application instead of “colored.” And later, when Desiree’s child inherits the skin color of her husband instead of her own, both Desiree and her daughter Jude experience how that very dark skin can create distain in both the white and Black communities.
The Vanishing Half is about self-invention and also about the unimagined consequences of life-changing actions taken when one is young. It’s about what is gained, but also about what is lost. Unfortunately, the revelation of what is lost is somewhat diluted by the choice of a third person narrator with multiple points of view presented, maybe six in all. We want to know more about the interior life of the sisters over the decades-long span of the book, and it seems that was forsaken to present points of view of sub-plot characters. It reinforces my instinct that point of view is the most important early decision an author makes about a book.
This not insignificant criticism aside, this is a very fine book, and I highly recommend it.