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The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett

Review by Helen’s Reads    


Stella and Desiree Vignes are identical twins growing up together in Mallard, a small, southern, black community until, at 16 they run away to New Orleans. From then on their fates and their identities differ dramatically. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same town she once tried to escape whilst the other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past, until a twist of fate causes their now very different and separate lives to intersect.

The Vanishing Half is a multi-generational story which spans the 1950s to the 1990s, and moves between the deep south, New York, Minneapolis and California. It has numerous threads and strands which are all woven skilfully by the author into a moving and engrossing story. The different narrative viewpoints really helps the reader get inside the heads of the characters and this further increases the reader’s empathy, appreciation and understanding for the situations in which they find themselves.

This is a book about mothers, daughters and sisters. It is a book about families. It is a book about race and racism, about class, and about the choices each character makes: how much of their lives are shaped by their choices, and how much is the shape and outcome of their lives, their hopes and expectations, determined by their race and class?

The parallel theme of identity, and the freedom to be oneself which threads through this book, is equally strong. This is something that almost every character is trying to deal with in one way or another, whether that be Stella passing over; Barry’s weekends as a drag queen; Reese who is trans; Jude’s career ambition or Kennedy leaving home unannounced to head to Rome to find herself.
Tellingly, Stella’s immediate response to Kennedy running away to discover herself is, “You didn’t just find yourself out there waiting – you had to make one”. This is her own philosophy in a nutshell, it is what she herself did with her own life.

Being yourself and being who you want to be is one of several subjects for debate raised by this excellent, thought-provoking and highly readable book.


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