The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

A humane and engaging exploration of a contentious subject: passing for white.

The very title of this book is intriguing: the novel revolves round twin girls who escape from their small community in Mallard, Louisiana, to establish new meaningful lives for themselves. The colour of their skin ‘defines’ them in their eyes and in those of others. They are ‘light skinned’ black Americans: one sister secretly marries into a white establishment, where she feels she has new opportunities, can re-identify herself and ‘disappear’, while the other takes a black partner and ends up returning to Mallard. It is both fascinating and disturbing to read of the choices that the ‘vanished’ sister makes in her new life. Both sisters have a daughter, whose lives in turn are shaped by the decisions their mothers took and whose own relationship is interesting and convincing.

Brit Bennett writes a compelling narrative and I found myself caught up in the lives of all the characters, who each have a voice. The novel raises very interesting questions about racial identity and the meaning of identity in a wider sense, about the nature of small communities, about the beliefs that society holds and about the influence the past has on our lives. She deals compassionately with transgender issues and the ways enforced ‘secrecy’ can impact on those who have a hidden identity. Through a small-scale scenario – identical twins who make different life choices – the author opens up contemporary questions for the reader to consider in a non-judgemental way. The sisters’ respective voyages of discovery end with their final reconciliation and, on reading the last page, I was left wondering – and caring – about what might happen to all the main characters in the future. That to me is an important hallmark of a satisfying book.

Reviewed by a Library Member

We have a copy of The Vanishing Half in the library.