Review: ‘The Vanishing Half’ reveals novelist Brit Bennett in full
The second novel. The sophomore effort. Let’s face it, for a novelist talented and fortunate enough to have published a debut that earned any attention at all — never mind general acclaim — the follow-up is a test. And the stakes are high.
Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers” was definitely one of those heralded debuts, an accessible coming-of-age story that was sneakily experimental — framing the troubles of a teenage girl in Oceanside with a chatty, confiding and ultimately controlling chorus of church ladies. The author was 26 when it was published in 2016.
In her new novel, “The Vanishing Half,” Bennett sticks to conventional narrative. Is she playing it safe the second time around? In fact, she’s only raising the stakes, gambling with an allegory that could be taken for a gimmick; she uses twin sisters as symbols of divergent paths for black women. Into the stories of these two characters, Bennett pours a small kitchen sink of contemporary issues: racial passing, colorism, domestic abuse, intersectional feminism, transsexuality, dementia, selling out, class politics and, sure, the plight of being a twin. It could be utterly disastrous in the wrong hands.
But it isn’t. Instead, Bennett pulls it off brilliantly.
Few novels manage to remain interesting from start to finish, even — maybe especially — the brilliant ones. But from the moment, in tumultuous 1968, when Desiree Vignes returns to the tiny hamlet of Mallard, La., clutching the hand of her daughter Jude, up to the conclusion, in which the grown-up Jude clutches her partner’s hand, Bennett locks readers in and never lets them go.
Mallard, which can’t be found on any map, came to be when several multiracial, increasingly lighter-skinned families — disdained by whites and blacks alike — decided to make their own settlement. And so the citizens of a place where the darkest person may be the redheaded Irish priest are unnerved to see, on Desiree’s return after many years away, that her 8-year-old daughter is “black as tar.” Why would a Vignes girl, with a complexion the color of “sand barely wet,” have a child so dark? And will she bring unwanted attention to their quiet burg?
Mallard has its own caste system, determined by nature and breeding in its most literal and dehumanizing sense: The lightest and fairest, with the loosest of curls, always come out on top. By rights, Desiree and her twin sister, Stella, are already there — great-great-great-granddaughters of the town founder and daughters of Adele, whose pale beauty and wavy hair mean Desiree and Stella will have their pick of Mallard’s young men.
Instead, at 14, still traumatized by their father’s lynching, the sisters steal away from home and head to New Orleans. They’re still there a few years later when, one night, Stella leaves a note saying, “I have to go my own way.” As the book slips and slides across decades, we eventually learn that Stella’s “own way” involves an act of passing so complete that she internalizes white privilege — as well as the sheer terror of having it revoked. She’s the vanishing twin, the vanishing black woman, the vanishing “half” of a family’s children.
So far, so potentially schematic. But Bennett’s method of sliced-up storytelling takes the spotlight away from Stella long enough that by the time this living metaphor returns to the story, it feels honest and earned. In the interim, Desiree settles in Washington, D.C., and trains as a fingerprint analyst before falling in love with exactly the wrong man. Hence her trip home.
In an act of secondary twinning, both Desiree and Stella have daughters of their own. Jude, Desiree’s “blueblack” child, is tormented in Mallard before finding her way to UCLA on a track-and-field scholarship. There she befriends Reese, a handsome cowboy type who wants to be a professional photographer. The two grow closer, and as Reese introduces Jude to his circle of drag queens and queer artists, Jude eventually realizes that Reese was born Theresa — and that she loves him completely.
The moment when Jude sees Reese wincing at the terrible bruises caused by his bindings might be one of the novel’s truest and thereby most poignant. “’You should take that thing off,’ she said. ‘If it hurts you. You don’t have to wear it here. I don’t care what you look like.’” He responds in anger: “ ’It’s not about you,’ he said, then he slammed the bathroom door shut.”
It would have been so easy for a writer to make this scene some kind of showpiece, to remind readers that half of Reese vanishes every time he winds elastic around his torso, but Bennett doesn’t take that path. Although Reese will eventually have top surgery, his relationship with Jude isn’t predicated on being all man or all woman or anything besides Jude’s soulmate. Although Bennett’s essays and fiction undeniably have a social-justice agenda, she leaves any weighty parallels — between, for example, racial and gender determinism — to the reader. Her restraint is the novel’s great strength, and it’s tougher than it looks.
Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, who’s grown up in California with blond hair, porcelain skin and violet eyes, suffers a worse fate. Her normcore beauty (“a face for the soaps”) might be the ultimate repudiation of Stella’s origins. Yet even before she and her cousin Jude cross paths at a Los Angeles party, Kennedy has sensed her mother’s hypocrisy. She has seen her mother brutally reject a friendly African American neighbor in their Hollywood Hills enclave; learning the truth will cause lasting damage. If Stella is the vanishing half, Kennedy is the undeveloped negative — the perfect blueprint that, absent any grounding identity, is no guarantee of a perfect life.
Near the end of this stunning novel, we learn that Adele Vignes has Alzheimer’s disease; we first know it when she mistakes Desiree for Stella. As the matriarch vanishes, so does her world: “By 1981, Mallard no longer existed, or, at least, it was no longer called Mallard…. Mallard had always been more of an idea than a place, and an idea couldn’t be redefined by geographical terms.” But the world has moved on; the Civil Rights Movement has changed laws and institutions, if not enough hearts and minds.
One of Bennett’s many small masterstrokes is to put one of the deepest ironies of the book in the mouth of a villain, Desiree’s abusive husband and Jude’s father. When Desiree tells him she hates Mallard, he retorts, “Negroes always love our hometowns … Even though we’re always from the worst places. Only white folks got the freedom to hate home.”
Both Desiree and Stella Vignes try hard to hate Mallard for a specific reason — its halfhearted, warped and doomed solution to the problem of American racism. But “The Vanishing Half” speaks ultimately of a universal vanishing. It concerns the half of everyone that disappears once we leave home — love or hate the place, love or hate ourselves.
The Vanishing Half
Riverhead: 352 pages, $27
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