Updated: Sep 19, 2021
Xolo Score 4/5
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett tells the story of light-skinned twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, who grew up in the all-Black small town of Mallard, Lousiana, where everyone is obsessed with having light skin. At the age of sixteen, the twins decide to run away to New Orleans in hopes of having more opportunities than their town could offer. But when Stella is mistaken for a white woman, she takes the chance to pass as white and leave Desiree to obtain upper-class society's safety and privileges. Roughly ten years after Stella's disappearance, Desiree returns to Mallard accompanied by her dark-skinned daughter, Jude. A multigenerational family saga, The Vanishing Half, is a deep dive into how identities shape a person and the ability one has to shape their identities.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
The story is very captivating and earns a spot next to other books about racial passing, such as Passing by Nella Larson. Almost all of the leading characters in The Vanishing Half are Black or BIPOC, and some identify as queer. Even if the plot was a bit predictable, there were plenty of nuances explored across themes of racial identity, colorism, and family.
Although the story starts with the Vignes twins, the book blossoms into its own when we see their daughters (Jude and Kennedy) navigate their early adulthood. The characters of Jude and Kennedy introduce ideas of racial ancestry and the traumas that one can inherit. And Bennett does an excellent job of bringing nuance to her characters by demonstrating their complexities and flaws as they navigate their societal constraints. Even Stella, who Bennet writes through a bit of a white lens due to her living as a white woman, is written as a dynamic and relatable character with constantly contradicting thoughts and emotions. Of course, we don't always agree with her but never do we fault her for passing.
The book is essentially challenging our notions of identity and how society likes to place people into convenient boxes for the ease of comprehension when rarely is it ever that simple. We want to fool ourselves into thinking that identity is part of our biological code. No matter how we try to deviate, we will surely slip up and our "true" identities exposed. But as Bennet shows us, Stella continues to live her life as a white woman. The life she chose is indeed the one she means to live. Now, this is not to say everyone should go and become the next Rachel Dolezal, but it is an invitation to introspect about one's own identities and explore rooms for growth.
I am so glad HBO will be making it into a series!