The Vanishing Half follows the divergent paths of identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, from their childhoods in the 1950s through the early 1990s. The twins grow up in a small town called Mallard that is entirely populated by mixed race Black folks. The founder of the town wanted a place that people who didn’t fit in with either the white or Black communities could go and build community together. It is like all small towns in many ways, full of all kinds of people all knowing each other’s business, but it’s also a place that insidiously fosters the values of white supremacy: the lighter you are the better. This isn’t something the book ever comes out and says directly, but it’s inherent in almost every storyline in the book. I’ve never read a book that explored colorism like this before (I read Passing in college but I don’t remember it very well). It was extremely well done.
Stella and Desiree are both very light skinned, and find the atmosphere of Mallard stifling (living in the town didn’t stop their father from being lynched, and them having to watch it happen). They end up running away to New Orleans, but soon Stella finds that she can pass as white, which she does in order to get a well-paying job. And then one day she disappears. The twins take opposite paths: Desiree marries a dark skinned black man, and Stella marries her boss, a white man, essentially becoming a white woman. The story of what happens to them unfolds from there. It’s not told linearly, but jumps back and forth from the past to the present, from Desiree to Stella, to their daughters, and to occasional other characters. But Bennett is very good at keeping things structured so that it’s never confusing. We spend just the right amount of time in each time period.
The book isn’t just about colorism, that’s only one of its facets. It’s also about love and identity and family. I read this book pretty fast, honestly probably too fast. This is a book that deserves to be savored and pulled apart, and then put back together again. It is extremely well written, and feels so genuine in the way the best stories do. It was good enough to make me forget that it’s lit-fic. Brit Bennett’s debut The Mothers didn’t sound all that appealing to me, but this was so good I might have to check it out anyway.