The Vanishing Half
Penguin Random House, $18, 2021
This engrossing story begins in the small Louisiana town of Mallard, populated by a community with a particular racial characteristic – a Black population who take pride in their light skin, some of them passing for white. It follows the lives of the Vignes twins, Stella and Desiree, who vanished in 1954 and their contrasting experiences with race in America, as Stella decides to marry a white man and pass as a white person, while Desiree marries a dark-skinned man and has Jude, who bears little resemblance to her mother.
Stella’s anxiety about her identity and being discovered in her lie continues throughout the story, motivated partially by the twins witnessing their father’s brutal racist murder when they were children. Stella hides her background from her husband and her daughter, Kennedy, who is frustrated by her mother’s evasiveness and eventually meets her cousin Jude in Los Angeles, who is trying to reconcile the twin sisters and meet her Aunt Stella.
One of the very interesting details of the story is that Jude is keeping a secret of her own, in that she has a transgender partner in Reese, and their love story, observed throughout the 1980s, shows him taking hormones and having surgery at the beginning of his transition. Jude goes to medical school and treats AIDS patients throughout the crisis while Reese gains prominence as a photographer.
The Vanishing Half is a moving story about the ways in which our identity, particularly race, shapes us and our perceptions of the self and others. The historical aspects of this story and the important transformation of American society is experienced through the lives of the fascinating individuals and relationships that Brit Bennett has created.