Watching the protests throughout the country’s cities you can’t help but feel that the past is the present. Racism, brutality and inequity still permeate America four centuries after the first Africans slaves were brought to our shores. Questions about the past, and how it informs the present, are what Brit Bennett tackles in her new book, “The Vanishing Half” (Riverhead Books). This multi-layered and emotionally absorbing novel is dazzling and timely. The story concerns identical African American twin sisters whose skin is so light that while one sister lives as a black woman, the other passes as white. Both sisters are troubled by personal and collective traumas and they linger in a netherworld, navigating the present while beating back the past.
Told in a forward-moving fashion with short flashbacks, the book spans 40 years from the 1950s to the 1990s. The Vigne sisters are inseparable twins with dissimilar temperaments growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. Desiree is confident and headstrong; Stella is bookish and shy. Their small farm town of Mallard, La., was established in 1848, and inhabited by light-skinned African Americans. It’s a place for people “who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.” The girls witnessed, through a crack in a closet door, the horror of white men lynching their father. They also watched poverty destroy their mother. Colorism, racism’s ugly brother, is a big part of their community. The sisters are taught that dark boys “don’t want nothin’ good” and to stay with their own kind. Neither twin pays attention to this rule later in life and, at age 16, they run away to New Orleans, work in laundries, hoping for a better life.
One day Desiree comes back to their apartment where there’s a note from her sister saying they must go their own ways. Their lives then split “as evenly as their shared egg.” Desiree continues to live her life as a woman of color but learns through detective work that Stella, discouraged with the lack of opportunities she’s given as a black person, has decided to pass for white.
Desiree moves to Washington, D.C., marries “the darkest man she could find” and has a baby. Her abusive husband causes her to move back to Mallard. When the light skinned Desiree suddenly shows up with a baby daughter, who is as “black as the beginning and the end of the world,” her presence topples the narrative of the town and who belongs there. The daughter is treated as an outcast. Mallard, founded by Desiree’s great-great-great grandfather, was a town full of mulattos that got lighter every generation: “fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek? Was this who counted for colored in America, who whites wanted to keep separate? Well, how could they tell the difference?”
In Mallard, Desiree falls in love with “the wrong sort of boy,” the dark-skinned Early, a man who “was only good at getting lost” and who knows “the key to staying lost was to never love anything.” Meanwhile her “vanished” sister Stella suffers flashbacks of sexual abuse and, passing into the white world, she weds her white employer, Blake. “She hadn’t adopted a disguise or even a new name. She’d walked in a colored girl and left a white one.” Stella cuts off all ties to her former life, making sure that no one in her new life has any idea of her past life as a Black woman. Her ensuing life in Los Angeles is cloaked in secrecy, requiring constant charade and performance and, ultimately she pays a heavy price for “passin’ over” and successfully pretending to be white. (One of the most painful scenes in this novel is of Stella publicly opposing the new black family moving into her white neighborhood.)
The author then shifts her focus to the next generation: the daughters of Desiree and Stella. They grow up in the 1970s and are completely opposite. Jude Winston, the timid daughter of Desiree, is ashamed of her appearance. The light-skinned boy who kisses her at night won’t recognize her by day because of her “blue-black” complexion. Jude goes to UCLA on an athletic scholarship and begins a new life. She falls in love with a trans man named Reese who used to be Therese. He suffered at the hands of his family and community for simply being himself. Reese is best friends with a man named Barry, who becomes Bianca on the weekends. Reinvention is the name of their game. “You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.” Transgender passing, like racial passing, in this novel, has its pros and cons.
Kennedy Sanders is Stella’s outspoken daughter. She is blond with eyes “so blue they looked violet.” She uses the n-word as a youngster, goes on academic probation as a teen and drops out of college to become an actress. Her romantic life is made up of many men, most of them married. Performance for Kennedy comes naturally. “Acting is not about being seen, a drama teacher told her once. True acting meant becoming invisible.” Because she is her mother’s daughter, Kennedy thoroughly understands superficiality and builds her career accordingly.
Bennett’s stunning debut novel, “The Mothers,” was heavily praised for its portrayal of the inner lives of women and the choices they make. “The Vanishing Half” deals with desire, inheritance and the strain between community and ambition. It explores in detail the American history of passing, the impact of secrets, domestic abuse, white privilege, racism, class, homophobia and transphobia. With echoes of Toni Morrison’s magnificent “The Bluest Eye,” “The Vanishing Half” is a captivating and impressive undertaking for a country that is obviously still grappling with the fallout of segregation.