Thursday, 16 July 2020

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

No sooner was The Vanishing Half published in the UK, barely a few weeks ago, than my timeline began to fill up with people saying how extraordinary it was. And my goodness, it doesn’t disappoint! From the minute that Desiree Vignes strides onto the page, battered suitcase in one hand, her daughter in the other, the characters fizzle and sizzle and the story zips along.

That opening scene takes place a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, in a town in Louisiana, too tiny to appear on any maps, called Mallard. Mallard was founded by the freed son of a slave owner. “A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes ... He imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream ... Each generation lighter than before.”

And therein lies bore the core dream of Mallard and the core theme of the novel – the insidious nature of colorism.

Desiree is one of two twin girls who, years ago, ran away from Mallard to make a life for themselves far away. But while Desiree defied Mallard to marry a dark skinned Black man and have a child “blue black, like she flown direct from Africa”, her twin, Stella, has achieved the seeming impossible, ‘passed over’ as white and vanished.

Yet both twins have reason to know how impossible the Mallard dream is. As children, they witnessed their light-skinned father lynched by a mob of white men, for no other reason, it seemed, than to remind Mallard they could never by white.

“White folk kill you if you want too much, kill you if you want too little ... You gotta follow they rules but they change them when they feel. Devilish, you ask me.”

The novel tracks the stories of Desiree and Stella and their two daughters, Jude and Kennedy. Stella’s life may exemplify how being white has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with what is in the eye of the beholder. But it also shows how, in different ways, colorism internalises racism – turning Stella against her colored neighbours when she fears they might expose her, or teaching Jude see her own dark skin as “a fly in the milk, contaminating everything.”
The novel also introduces a trans character – Jude’s boyfriend Reese, completely and tenderly accepted for who he is, by Jude and by the narrator, even while he himself is still struggling with his identity.

An exquisite tour de force of a novel, peopled with flawed and unforgettable characters. and brimming with warmth and compassion.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo, When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola, Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes, The Mother by Yvvette Edwards

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded that both race and gender are constructs.

Perfect Accompaniment: Cornbread and milk

Genre: Literary Fiction

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