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  • Writer's pictureNia Forrester

'The Vanishing Half' by Brit Bennett

In The Vanishing Half, Mallard, Louisiana is a town where the people are "Negroes" and yet look as white as the white people who both loathe and are perplexed by them. And in Mallard, the Vignes girls are twins, and minor celebrities as descendants of the town's founder, a man who created the place as a refuge for those Negroes who looked white and could, if they so chose, "pass over" and live their lives as white. But that is the puzzle of Mallard and of colorism in general -- most of these folks don't want to be white, they don't however want to be Black-Black either. The two Vignes girls, Stella and Desiree, at the age of sixteen run off to New Orleans escaping the stifling expectations of Mallard and their mother's declining fortunes which has her cleaning the houses of white women just to get by after her husband's death.

One sister, Desiree, chooses to live her life as the Black woman she is, the other vanishes without warning into life as a white woman, leaving her Blackness and her twin sister behind. The effect and consequences of this, both emotionally and intergenerationally are the crux of this novel. I found it a painful read, because of the portrayal of what Black people lost and the compromises they made to gain the benefits that came from proximity to whiteness. I especially liked reading about Jude, Desiree's "blue-black" daughter who suffers when her mother returns with her to Mallard, enduring the casual cruelties of her almost-white peers, and the confusing aggression from boys who desire her but are taught to hate her and themselves for doing so. They victimize Jude but are themselves victims of a society that values whiteness and closeness to it. Jude's experience as a dark-skinned girl and then woman is the flip side of her mother's experience with Jude's father, a man much darker than her who both loved and loathed his wife's lightness.

I waited and was eager for Brit Bennet's sophomore novel because something about 'The Mothers' moved me, though I'm still not sure what. I can only imagine that it was the way she writes about identity, and not just racial identity though this book is definitely about that, but also about literally being uncomfortable in your own skin (and all the permutations that takes). She also writes in this novel, as she did in her first, stirringly about motherhood, and about notions of home and the urge to return, even when home may have been a place that caused you pain. But central to this novel, I think, may be the idea of loss. Maybe that's why Brit Bennett's work leaves me so moody. Moody, but never feeling incomplete. I recommend.

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