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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.