Trigger warning for brief depictions of domestic violence and racism.
Set over thirty years in the lives of a very complicated family, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half follows several women in the Vignes family as they experience racism, domestic violence, colorism, and poverty. This novel is the kind that spurs difficult conversations about our own responses to racism and transgender discrimination. I completely understand why this book is a critical and reader favorite.
The Vanishing Half opens in the late 1960s. Desiree and her daughter, Jude, have returned to Mallard, Louisiana to escape an abusive husband and father. Desiree thought she would never come back to her strange home town after she and her twin sister, Stella, ran away more than a decade before. The inhabitants of Mallard, we learn, have been conducting a quiet eugenics effort so that their children will have increasingly lighter skin with each generation. Desiree and Stella are of African descent but have light enough skin that they can sometimes pass for white. While Desiree “stays” Black and ends up working as a waitress while raising her daughter (whose skin is so dark that characters describe her as blueblack), Stella pretends to be white to get a job as a secretary. Stella’s passing leads her to run away one more time, leaving her twin behind, to live as a white woman married to a wealthy advertising executive.
The above is just a small fraction of The Vanishing Half, although it contains that catalysts for all of the novel’s plots. Just as I was settling into learning more about Desiree’s life as a runaway who had to come back, the plot jumps ahead to the late 1970s. We see a now grown Jude is heading to California for college. Jude ends up meeting, falling in love, and moving in with Reese, a trans man. Reese’s transition—alluded to, but not explored in depth—is an interesting contrast to Stella’s because where one transition (Reese’s) is meant to align biology with gender identity the other (Stella’s) is pretense. Seeing these two transitions juxtaposed with each other is one of the things about this book that makes it so fascinating to read. We have to wonder, seeing the two, how malleable is identity? Can we transform ourselves from one race to another and one gender to another? What does it mean to pass? Can we generalize these characters’ experiences to real life? If so, how much? I struggle with even coming up with the words to express what I think about all these questions.
My only quibbles with the book come from my own preferences as a reader. I tend to read for plot and characterization. I want a good story with believable characters. With the exception of Stella–who we see in the early 1970s and then in the 1980s wrestle with her secrets and fear of being found out when a Black family moves across the street from her in her exclusive (and exclusively white) neighborhood—the characters struck me as a bit bland. Character development and realism took a slight back seat to all the subtext and larger issues the plot has to carry. I also thought the ending was a bit of a fizzle after all of the psychological conflict in the book.
I hope my small criticisms don’t dissuade readers (especially American readers) from picking up The Vanishing Half. This book has a lot of very important questions that our society needs to talk about. Even if words fail us, we need to look at our own and our society’s prejudices. We need to examine why it is that some of us value paler skin or some of us get uncomfortable when transgender people live in a gender-confirming way. Because this novel definitely shows us that appearance is not what we should value. Instead, what we should value is the truth of each other’s humanity.