This is a story about twin teenage girls who escape small town life and head for the city. It is about identity and judgement and racism is on every page, much of it ostensibly black on black though the lynching of the girls’ father shows this colour preoccupation is far more than cosmetic in the context of 1950s Louisiana. There’s a lot in this small book.
Mallard is such an insignificant town it doesn’t appear on the map. It’s a sprawl of houses, a couple of shops and Lou’s Egg House, where locals gather to gossip. The families who have always lived in Mallard know the place exists. It’s a black township. A very light black township. Everyone comments on this fact, that the inhabitants have a lightness of skin. There are degrees of black and these folk are right at the pale end of the spectrum, but they identify as black, list themselves as black when they are asked (which is often in the 1950s: on job applications, tenancy agreements, school registers etc) and lead black lives. They go to neighbouring townships and clean white folks’ homes.
Desiree and Stella clean a house with a spiralling staircase and a chandelier. The owner remarks to her husband: “What pretty girls. So light, aren’t they?”
When they run off to the city, Stella takes a job and doesn’t tick the coloured box. She transitions, and begins a new life passing as white. She’s that light she can get away with it. She marries her boss, relocates to LA and leaves her brown-stained past behind her. She has a daughter who grows up white. Her twin, Desiree, marries a very black man. Her daughter is blue black which causes a stir when she returns home. Jude is not the desired colour for the town gossips. “I just don’t see how nothin that black coulda come out Desiree.”
This fixation on skin tone colours the book: colour of sand barely wet; blueblack, tar baby, midnight, mudpie. Black as coffee, asphalt, outer space. The description of shade is endless and grates away in the background of every scene. This, Brit Bennett is saying, is what it is like to be black. “Black” is a blunt collective noun.
The daughters of the twins grow up— one identifying as black and one white. Jude had a boyfriend whose story runs in a strange parallel to this first narrative of transitioning. He has no trouble identifying with his blackness but he was born a girl and isn’t. Jude’s white cousin inherits her mother’s imposter syndrome and takes to the stage, playing anyone but herself.
How far do you go to be true to your identity, who defines the truth of that identity and how does it feel living day to day in fear of being outed? The Vanishing Half is an extraordinary novel about the part that is left behind and never really goes away.