April Book Club: The Vanishing Half
Welcome to our April choice for the Well Read Company Book Club!
Brit Bennett’s ‘The Vanishing Half’ was arguably the book of 2020, so by the time I finally got around to reading it this year, my anticipation was high. The novel focuses on the Vignes twins, two black girls who grow up pale enough to ‘pass’ as white. They run away from their constrictive small, southern community at sixteen and go on to forge completely different lives, identities and communities. One twin decides to ‘pass’ as white forever, the other does not. This snowballing lie is the wedge that drives between them, and transforms their lives.
The premise of this book intrigued me, as it was a subject I knew little about. The book is brilliant at displaying how this choice of one of the twin’s refracts into every single area of her life, and how identity is not something we are necessarily born with, but is something we can choose. Throughout the novel, trans characters, drag queens and matriarchs show again and again that identity can be moulded and shaped, perhaps at the cost of leaving our former selves behind. “She hadn't realised how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”
Bennett goes on to show the reflecting consequences of the twins’ differing decisions also affecting their daughters - Stella, (who decided to ‘pass’), has a daughter who is given every opportunity life can offer, whilst Desiree’s daughter struggles with poverty and racism throughout her life. The story travels from the 1950s to the 1990s, through multiple generations and travelling from the Deep South to California. As a result, the novel is both an intense look at one particular family and the minutiae of their decisions, and a wider look at American history. One family’s struggle is representative of so many issues present at the time, and even today. Neither twin can escape her past, or each other, when they are so intrinsically bonded.
Even though the scope of the novel is wide, Bennett manages to imbue her characters with a freshness and realism that is rare to find on the page. Each felt fully realistic and not at all derived from stereotypes. Love stories are confusing and hard to label, and families are both close yet separated by hundreds of miles - Bennett makes it clear that nothing is black and white in life, which makes her novel even more tangible. “When you married someone, you promised to love every person he would be. He promised to love every person she had been. And here they were, still trying, even though the past and the future were both mysteries.”
I found this novel very profound on issues of identity and how much we can truly escape our past. It was refreshing for the main focus of a novel to be on sisters and family rather than a romantic relationship, highlighting how sisterly relationships, as with any, can be both nurturing and overbearing.
We loved reading this novel this month and are so excited to discuss it with you - please tell us what you thought via social media or by commenting on this post!