By David Canfield
June 03, 2020 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Riverhead Books

The Vanishing Half

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At its very root, Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half, a generous and precise family saga that spans decades while darting from coast to coast, tells a story of absolute, universal timelessness — a story of what it means to simply be, to grow up and define oneself and reinvent, to negotiate a place in the world. It's also a deeply American story, rigorously engaged with a country's racist past and present, while interrogative of its foundational values, like choice and legacy. For any era, it's an accomplished, affecting novel. For this moment, it's piercing, subtly wending its way toward questions about who we are and who we want to be.

Formally, this marks a departure for Bennett, whose best-selling first book, The Mothers, unfurled a vivid story of teenage girlhood through a chorus of church ladies. This second book opens in familiar terrain for the author, at least: the local diner in the small Louisiana town of Mallard, circa 1968, where regulars gossip about the rumored homecoming of Desiree Vignes, one of two twins who ran away over a decade ago, at 16 years old. The action swirls, dialogue moves fast; it's the Bennett readers will comfortably remember, the debut sensation from a few years back. But she's grown. The Vanishing Half, like its characters, changes; the prose confidently pulls back, as Bennett gradually reveals what happened to Desiree, her sister Stella, and the daughters and mothers and husbands of their lives.

Mallard, Bennett writes, was a "strange town." You couldn't really find it on a map. Nobody outside it really knew about it. Its reputation, internally, was perversely idyllic: a place where, in the mid-19th century, lighter-skinned black families settled for a utopian sort of existence. Of course, it's but a fantasy. In The Vanishing Half, the tension there first flares when Desiree shows up with her daughter, Jude, who's comparatively dark-skinned. The community is shocked. It's implied that Desiree's mother will not approve.

Why has Desiree come back? Bennett trades in secrets with the best of them — her plotting, at its juiciest, holds a soapy cinematic pull — but she doesn't play coy, either. She's a storyteller in total command of the narrative, her shattered family portrait pieced back together with artful restraint and burgeoning clarity. Indeed, twin Stella emerges as equally significant. After she and Desiree fled to New Orleans as teens, they separated. Desiree moved to Washington, D.C., found a job as a fingerprint analyst, and married a black prosecutor who turned abusive. Stella headed west, and chose to pass as white.

With "their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg," Bennett works backward and forward. She paints a harsh portrait of their childhood: their father brutally lynched by white men, their mother left alone to scrape by. Trauma pushes Desiree and Stella, very different girls but each with hopes and dreams, away from the only place they've ever known — where "even here, where nobody married dark, you were still colored and that meant that white men could kill you for refusing to die." That legacy shapes the Vignes sisters, and then their own daughters, who complete this generational tale.

With each of these stories, Bennett simply watches. She watches Desiree, "fidgety" and anxious to escape her pain, fall hard for "the darkest man she could find," only to reconnect with the home she abandoned. She watches Stella internalize whiteness in adulthood, turning bitter and bigoted and, most of all, angry as she marries her rich boss who has no idea of her background. Their decisions on how to live in the present rub up against the realities of their pasts.

In Jude, Desiree's daughter, and in Kennedy, Stella's daughter, the novel finds more hope and more hurt, all suffused with love. Jude bonds tightly with a trans man named Reese and learns of a different kind of story about passing and identity and authenticity. Kennedy, raised spoiled and ignorant, moves into acting, learning the same lesson of becoming "invisible" for her art that her mother had learned for her existence. Bennett's writing has a fated quality to it, and thus the union of Jude and Kennedy — as well as its profound, surprising consequences — feels inevitable.

So comes the reckoning. Bennett concludes her book not with a steady stream of twists, or a final epic set piece, but a quiet, pointed reflection on the forces of identity, inherent and constructed: a rather heartbreaking reality check for two sisters who decided to face the world alone — who couldn't bear another day in skins that had been punished and exhausted. Bennett asks at one point later in The Vanishing Half, "How could she leave the people who still longed for her, years later, and never even look back?" Whether it's about Desiree or Stella, the book delivers a thorough answer, one that speaks both to the intimate truths of family connection, and to the ever-complex, ever-enraging story of race in America. A-

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The Vanishing Half

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  • Book
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  • Brit Bennett
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  • Riverhead

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