When this book came out, I was moved to read Bennett’s previous book The Mothers and admired it; this one deserves the attention it has received. It is centered on the story of twins who came from a village in Louisiana populated by Black people with very light skin. They preferred to avoid those with darker skin while they were themselves subject to the oppression of whites. The story refers to events of the 1950s, including the brutal death of their father that the twins observed. The story begins in earnest in 1968 when one of the twins, Desiree, returns to the village as an adult with a 7-year-old child. While Desiree and Stella were living in New Orleans, Stella abandoned her sister and moved into the white world.
Years later Desiree, musing on those who passed for white, says that she
only knew the failures: the ones who’d gotten homesick, or caught, or tired of pretending. But for all Desiree knew, Stella had lived white for half her life now, and maybe acting for that long ceased to be acting altogether. Maybe pretending to be white eventually made it so.
That was not the case for Stella. When she and her husband had a baby, Stella was relieved that the newborn was milky white with blond hair, so that her ongoing fraud to her husband was not revealed. “Kennedy felt like a daughter who belonged to someone else, a child Stella was borrowing while she loaned a life that never should have been hers.”
What it meant for Stella to become a different person is echoed by the experiences of others. Reese, the boyfriend of Desiree’s daughter, crossed the country in the early 1970s, beginning as Therese and left behind family, name, and gender. Even temporary changes in persona are recognized; when Kennedy, Stella’s daughter, steps onto the stage, she changes from the bratty, self-centered person she is to her character. The character she made famous in a soap opera lived on afterward for herself and her fans. Barry, a friend of Reese and Jude had two lives:
He was Bianca on two Saturday nights a month, and otherwise, he pushed her out of sight, even though he thought about her, shopped for her, planned for her eventual return. Barry went to faculty meetings and family reunions and church, Bianca always lingering on the edge of his mind. She had her role to play and Barry had his. You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.
Bennett tells several compelling stories with characters who became people to me while never losing sight of exploring the human ability to become another person, to change our own stories.
Brit Bennett, Vanishing Half, Riverhead Books, 2020, 343 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the public library.