When I saw my best friend after lockdown at Easter she gave me my last in a long list of great books I got for Christmas - The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. I had wanted to read it for ages, having heard many great reviews, and it was a real treat to settle into.
It’s the story of twins Desiree and Stella and the very different paths they take in life, having grown up together in the small town of Mallard in Louisiana. The twins are black, and their lives are defined by race. As young children they experience the trauma of hiding in a wardrobe as their father is dragged from their house and murdered by a racist mob. Mallard is a black community that prides itself on the lightness of the skin of its inhabitants and as they then grow up they learn that hanging around with boys and men with darker skins is unacceptable. Their mother works as a cleaner for rich white folk, and the girls have to leave school and join her, dropping exhausted at the end of every day. It’s the limitations of this life that leads Desiree to hatch a plan to escape, and one night they leave together for New Orleans.
From there their paths quickly diverge and this time it is Stella who disappears, leaving Desiree behind, and leaving a hole that can never be filled. Desiree goes on to marry a darker skinned man, has a baby girl, Jude, and finds herself having to leave Washington DC where she has settled, to return to her mother in Mallard. On the other side of the country Stella has created a very different life for herself, her light skin allowing her to pass herself as white, marrying a white man and having a baby girl, Kennedy, who everyone also sees as white. Stella is so threatened by being exposed that she becomes racist herself, as she desperately struggles with her identity and the choice she made, which has trapped her ever since.
Fate then brings Kennedy and Jude together and from there it is only a matter of time before the cousins and their mothers have to come together to confront their shared pasts and their very different presents.
This is such a clever and beautifully written novel. I enjoyed it so much that I’m already looking forward to reading Bennett’s previous novel The Mothers.