When Desiree Vignes returns to Mallard, Louisiana, in 1968 after running away 14 years earlier, people take note—especially because she’s accompanied by her dark-skinned 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The black citizens of Mallard believe that lighter skin is better, an idea that’s been championed since the town’s founding back in 1848. All these years later, the townspeople “weren’t used to having a dark child amongst them and were surprised by how much it upset them.”
That’s just part of the masterful plot of The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett’s exquisite second novel, which weaves together scenes from the 1950s through the ’90s, tackling such issues as racism, identity, gender and inherited trauma. Family ties and secrets were at the heart of Bennett’s bestselling debut, and she continues to explore these themes here, this time concentrating on sisterhood. The title refers to Desiree’s identical twin, Stella, who has turned her back on her family, married her white boss and is living in California as a white woman, a secret unbeknownst to her husband and daughter, Kennedy.
This is a novel to be devoured slowly, not only for its intriguing plot and exploration of vital issues but also for its gorgeous writing. Bennett digs deep into the history of colorism and racism in America and explores how far their poisons can reach. As young girls, Stella and Desiree witness the lynching of their father by angry white men. This tragedy haunts his surviving family, its effects reverberating for generations to come.
At the novel’s core is not only family but also community, from Mallard to the privileged, seemingly progressive Los Angeles neighborhood where Stella lives with her family. When a black television star and his family move in across the street from Stella, it poses a unique dilemma that unfolds in a multitude of rewarding scenes. Soon the lives of cousins Jude and Kennedy intersect with plot twists reminiscent of Twelfth Night, which the novel references.
The Vanishing Half calls to mind the work of Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Strout. Bennett writes like a master, creating rich worlds filled with a broad cast of characters, all shining brightly in memorable moments both big and small.