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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

How do we categorise the people we meet? By what we see? By ethnicity, colour, gender, age and in the UK those tiny indicators of class. Whole systems of exploitation have been built on the genetic features, especially ethnicity and gender. 

In recent years we have been encouraged to believe that our genetic composition determines our characters. Think of those people who look for criminal genes, or speak about inheriting certain characteristics from their parents, such as sporting ability. Think of the tv programme Who do you think you are? in which ancestors are traced, implying they can explain the person featured. 

The Vanishing Half questions these ideas about inherited attributes. It challenges how people are identified by ethnicity, or gender, and looks at some people who choose to ‘pass’. And it does this through a moving story of twins who ran away and their daughters.

The Vanishing Half

Twin girls, Desiree and Stella, are born in Mallard, a small town in the southern state of Louisiana. Their father was light skinned, and was murdered by white men in front of the twins. The town of Mallard is inhabited by light skinned African Americans, and its population values lightness above all. The consequences of maintaining the lighter skin tone in the town creates an oppressive environment. It was 1954when the twins ran away but 14 years later Desiree, returns without Stella. This is the starting point of the novel, for Desiree is escaping a violent marriage and is accompanied by her very dark skinned daughter, Jude. Stella has disappeared. Early Jones is a tracker paid by her husband to trace Desiree, but they become lovers and his attempts to trace Stella on her behalf produce no results. 

The story shifts down a generation. Jude suffers from her dark skin in Mallard and escapes as soon as she can, to LA on a university athletics scholarship. Stella lives in an exclusive, white neighbourhood, ‘passing’ as the white wife of a rich man, with a beautiful pale skinned fair haired daughter called Kennedy. They too live in LA and of course the paths of Kennedy and Jude cross. 

Stella, living as a white woman, is perpetually in fear of discovery. She is oppressed by  the consequences of her decision to be seen as white. She must be secretive about her early life, and does not mix socially. When her neighbours discover that a Black family will move into their exclusive community she leads the campaign of resistance. But she cannot resist befriending the wife of these incomers when their daughters play together. Kennedy does not know her mother’s secret, but when the cousins meet Jude works it out and tries to convince her.

Jude, in the meantime, has fallen for Reese, who has his own secrets. And they are friends with Barry, who has a successful drag act, while being a teacher in his day job. So many lies. So much acting.

There is no happy ending to this novel. Each of the characters must find their own way to live. Stella returns to Mallard to visit her mother and her twin only once and then resumes her wealthy, secretive, white life. Her daughter becomes a soap actress, recognised as the character she plays, not as herself.

Kennedy’s role in Pacific Cove as girl-next-door Charity Harris serves her well when she retrains to become a realtor:

A model home was nothing but a set, if you thought about it, the open house a grand performance directed by her. Each time, she stood behind the door, bowing her head as jittery as the first time she had ever taken the stage, knowing that her mother would be out there in the audience watching. Then she put on a big Charity Harris smile, opening the door. She would disappear inside herself, inside the empty home where nobody actually lived. As the room filled with strangers, she always found her mark, guiding a couple through the kitchen, pointing out the light fixtures, backsplash, high ceilings.
‘Imagine your life here,’ she said. ‘Imagine who you could be.’ (319)

So what is identity? Can you make up your own identity? Does your genetic heritage determine who you are? Or are you who you choose to be? It is not only the actors who have to pretend a role in life. Don’t we all have to do this to some extent? 

It’s a good novel that can pose pertinent, important questions and carry a compelling story at the same time. 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, published in 2020. I read the paperback edition from Dialogue Books. 366pp

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

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