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The Vanishing Half Reviews

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett

4.34 out of 5

16 reviews

Imprint: Dialogue Books
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publication date: 11 Jun 2020
ISBN: 9780349701462

Dialogue's super lead for 2020. From the author of the New York Times bestseller The Mothers, a powerful new novel about the parallel lives of estranged twin sisters who choose to live in two very different worlds - one black and one white.

2 Prizes for The Vanishing Half

The British Book Awards
2021 Shortlist: Fiction Book of the Year

Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller and chair of the British Book Awards judges, said: “From Shuggie Bain to The Thursday Murder Club, from All the Lonely People to The Danger Gang, from Hamnet to Black and British, these were the books that answered the call during this period of turmoil, debate and hope.” 

Women's Prize for Fiction
2021 Shortlist

Chair of judges and novelist Bernardine Evaristo, said: ‘…with this shortlist, we are excited to present a gloriously varied and thematically rich exploration of women’s fiction at its finest. These novels will take the reader from a rural Britain left behind to the underbelly of a community in Barbados; from inside the hectic performance of social media to inside a family beset by addiction and oppression; from a tale of racial hierarchy in America to a mind-expanding tale of altered perceptions. Fiction by women defies easy categorisation or stereotyping, and all of these novels grapple with society’s big issues expressed through thrilling storytelling. We feel passionate about them, and we hope readers do too.’


5 stars out of 5
Nina Pottell
1 Jan 2021

"This book has everything"

This book has everything: enticing plot, memorable characters and beautiful, melodic writing. Twins Stella and Desiree grow up in a small black community in the southern US, until they run away at 16. Desiree returns with her child 10 years later, while Stella is living in California, passing as white. The dual narrative ebbs and flows through this astounding book. 

5 stars out of 5
Sarra Manning
1 Jan 2021

"should win many, many awards"

This immersive novel about twins Desiree and Stella, who run away from the small, suffocating Southern town of Mallard when they're 16 to carve out a new life for themselves, should win many, many awards. 

2 stars out of 5
13 Aug 2020

"In setting down the plot twists, parallels, shocks and returns of The Vanishing Half, I’ve sometimes felt that it might as well be a soap opera, a potboiler, a TV series"

There is a third reading of a novel when you’re writing about it, one that necessarily takes you further away from the sunny weekend lying on the grass. In setting down the plot twists, parallels, shocks and returns of The Vanishing Half, I’ve sometimes felt that it might as well be a soap opera, a potboiler, a TV series (as it soon will be – HBO bought rights for a seven-figure fee at the end of June). Bennett’s novel isn’t quintessentially a novel, but I’m not so far away from that first reading to think that it needs to be something other than what it is. The Vanishing Half has sold thousands of copies across the world this summer, and if thousands of people can forget the deadly virus, political mismanagement, racial violence, domestic violence, economic uncertainty and ecological disaster (as well as the washing-up, their overgrown fringe and their neighbours’ suspiciously un-distanced-sounding party), while reading a book that touches on all these things, resolves happily but not stupidly, and reintroduces them to Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry – well, that’s good enough.

5 stars out of 5
18 Jul 2020

"This richly textured and nuanced novel depicts characters who find themselves with splintered identities"

Bennett is at her most compelling when she describes the emotionally fraught bond between women, a subject she previously explored in her debut, The Mothers. And she is deft at using figurative language. Kennedy refers to her mother’s past as ‘a barren pantry shelf’; and Desiree, on returning to her hometown, reflects on how it looks different — ‘like a house where all the furniture had shifted three inches. You wouldn’t mistake it for a stranger’s house but you’d keep banging your shins on the table corners’.

4 stars out of 5
17 Jul 2020

"(a) poignant and clever multigenerational saga about race in America"

Stella eventually marries her white boss, who is unaware of her roots, and lives in a wealthy, white Los Angeles suburb. For this mixed-race reader, each page of Stella’s fakery, each page of her pretending to be white even in the face of so much racism, felt like a punch to the gut. Stella has to sacrifice so much of herself to maintain the lie. “Passing” requires utter vigilance; Stella must avoid black people who are most likely to spot her deception. And this feeling of utter frustration fuels the book’s power as a page-turner.

5 stars out of 5
Maria Crawford
25 Jun 2020

"an indictment on race and class in America"

Can you truly leave behind the identity you’re born with? In 1950s New Orleans, an identical twin, desperate for dignity, abandons her beloved sister to begin a starkly different life: she passes as white, her blackness kept secret for the rest of her life. Bennett’s arresting, humane novel is an indictment on race and class in America.

5 stars out of 5
23 Jun 2020

"a quietly damning account of acquiescing to an imitation of life and the delusion of the American dream"

The omniscient authorial voice is gentle and compassionate in a tale that inverts and confounds expectations. The extrovert Desiree is also a homing bird who returns to her sleepy home town. Her shy sister turns out to be more adventurous and sheds her family as easily as a snake shedding its skin. Though Stella comes to feel “a secret transgression was even more thrilling than a shared one”, she lives on amber alert in fear of her fabricated story unravelling... The Vanishing Half may seem old-fashioned but it’s cleverly constructed to both match and critique the conservativism of the 1950s and 60s: the attenuated tone chimes with the restrained language and style of the period. Ultimately, it’s a quietly damning account of acquiescing to an imitation of life and the delusion of the American dream.

4 stars out of 5
Claire Allfree
18 Jun 2020

"a truly excellent novel"

As the sisters’ separate lives unspool in widely different directions — with Stella, the novel’s most fascinating character, living in fear her real identity will one day be found out — Bennett explores the multiple ways in which race and gender can be authentic, permeable and socially constructed all at once, without ever passing judgment on her characters.

Combining a mythic structure with emotionally rich social realism, this is a truly excellent novel.

4 stars out of 5
Maria Crawford
17 Jun 2020

"(a) fluent and openhearted story of a 20th-century American family"

It seems a simple premise, almost playful; but Bennett, who took on the most delicate family secrets in her 2016 debut The Mothers, is not playing. She lays out the twins’ paths from the shared trauma of their father’s lynching in the 1940s to their own daughters’ disparate outcomes into the 1990s. In a style as easy and candid as a detective story, she scatters clues for us to gather just as, crucially, the twins’ contrasting daughters, Jude and Kennedy, piece together fragments of their painful heritage.

5 stars out of 5
Joanne Hayden
15 Jun 2020

"Intimate and expansive, gripping and carefully crafted"

Bennett is an excellent storyteller, though some of her secondary characters – a white academic blind to how white and middle class her version of feminism is – are overshadowed by the plot and can feel like plants. But the novel is driven by the intelligence and agility of her writing, which is tender without being sentimental, and stark when it needs to be. The violence is indelible, the twins’ complicated bond beautifully real.

4 stars out of 5
Claire Lowdon
14 Jun 2020

"a bold tale of racial prejudice"

The period details in The Vanishing Half are offered just as casually; an emergency Homeowners Association meeting in Brentwood in 1968, for example — the emergency being the “regretful news” that “the Lawsons on Sycamore Way were selling their house and a colored man had just placed an offer to buy it”. Moments such as this are all the more disturbing for how quotidian they are to Bennett’s characters. In 1968 that was the water they swam in.

Which brings us to the water we’re swimming in now. “It’s not something I imagined when I started this book in 2014,” Bennett told Vanity Fair, “that it would be framed as being topical in some way.” But, of course, it does feel intensely topical; a novel that deftly rehearses the history of prejudice and suffering leading up to the present moment. It’s a clever balancing act indeed to pair such heartbreaking material with a narrative that’s so much fun.

5 stars out of 5
5 Jun 2020

"Dramatically exposes the emotional stakes of identity"

In The Vanishing Half, she follows a set of twins after they leave their small, mainly Black hometown in Louisiana. One, Desiree, eventually returns and finds her life hemmed in by discrimination and circumstance. The other, Stella, reinvents herself as a white woman and spends decades in an upper-middle-class California community, where she is forced to hide her secret. By tracing Stella and Desiree’s diverging paths, and the way their daughters are affected, the novel maps the lines drawn between white and Black people and dramatically exposes the emotional stakes of identity.

4 stars out of 5
Michael Donkor
4 Jun 2020

"This generous, humane novel has many merits, not least its engrossing plot and richly detailed settings"

Bennett is a gifted storyteller. This generous, humane novel has many merits, not least its engrossing plot and richly detailed settings, from smoky small-town diners to gleaming laboratories. The handling of Stella’s secret struggles is, however, an especial achievement. Stella’s lie takes her into a deep and jagged introspection that threatens the life she has so painstakingly built. Yet the novel proves to be a timely testament to the redemptive powers of community, connection and looking beyond the self.

4 stars out of 5
Arielle Tchiprout
3 Jun 2020

"this emotional family story is also a timely exploration of American history"

Named as one of Oprah’s most anticipated books of 2020, The Vanishing Half follows the identical Vignes twin sisters, who choose to live in very different words – one Black, and one white. Weaving together multiple strands of generations of this family, from the Deep South of California from the 1950s and 1990s, this emotional family story is also a timely exploration of American history.

4 stars out of 5
Parul Sehgal
26 May 2020

"a remarkably assured writer"

But Bennett excels in conjuring the silences of families and in evoking atmosphere: the claustrophobia of the small town and its scuzzy and beloved saloon (“Cold Women! Hot Beer!” its sign proclaims), the jazz clubs in New Orleans where the twins first taste freedom. There’s something deeply familiar but weightless about her settings. They are conjured not as real places, one feels, but as their mythologies, in how they exist in the imagination. We know these spaces not from life but from literature.

  • The BooksellerEditor's Choice
5 stars out of 5
Alice O'Keeffe
6 Mar 2020

"Fascinating, and beautifully written"

Bennett has not been published in the UK before, although her debut, The Mothers, was a bestseller in her native US. Dialogue have swooped in over here, making this a super lead for 2020, and it deserves to be big. It begins in a small town in the Deep South, a place identical twins Stella and Desiree ran away from as 16-year-olds in 1954. Ten years later, Desiree has returned with a young daughter in tow, but no one has seen or heard from Stella, who, it turns out, is secretly passing for white, and her new family know nothing of her past. Fascinating, and beautifully written.