*Light spoilers for The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett*
When done well, I love a novel that jumps forward significantly in time with each chapter, often giving us a different characters’ perspective as it goes along. This technique functions as a way to look at the novel’s facets from different angles, turning the characters and ideas and places and themes this way and that, seeing how they catch the light from this aspect, noticing when they turn dark. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half uses this approach to explore the lives of two light-skinned African American twins, one of whom decides to abandon her family and “pass” as white.
The novel opens in 1968 with one of the twins, Desiree, returning to the tiny, all Black town of Mallard where she grew up. Everyone in Mallard is light-skinned and proud of that fact, and Desiree returns clutching the hand of a very dark-skinned daughter. From there the novel traces Desiree’s life in Mallard where she grew up with her twin sister Stella, the interlude where she lived first in New Orleans with Stella and then in D.C., and then her return to Mallard and her mother’s house.
From there The Vanishing Half jumps to 1978, largely focused on Jude who has moved across the country to Los Angeles for college, where she also encounters her cousin, Kennedy, and her long lost aunt, Stella. We travel back to 1968 for Stella’s story, and then to various years within the 1980s as we learn more about Desiree, Stella, Jude, and Kennedy’s lives. By focusing not only on the twins but on their daughters—cousins who look like opposites—we gain deeper insight into the repercussions of the twins’ choices and the Gordian knot that is race in America. Or perhaps Schrödinger’s Cat provides a better metaphor, Bennett’s novel revealing how race both is and is not real.
The Vanishing Half is a beautiful, smart, remarkable book. It reads like a compelling page turner full of rich characters, perfect for book groups. But it also contains the depths of language, symbolism, and layers that would make it at home in a literature seminar. One thing I loved about it was how it not only plays with dyads and binaries—twins, white/black, rich/poor, male/female, gay/straight, west coast/southeast, dark-skinned/light-skinned, and more—but how those dyads and binaries shift the meaning of the title.
For example, “The vanishing half” is, first and foremost, Stella, the twin who leaves behind her family in pursuit of another life. When she first begins “passing” for a job, Stella thinks, “Sometimes she wondered if Miss Vignes was a separate person altogether. Maybe she wasn’t a mask that Stella put on. Maybe Miss Vignes was already a part of her, as if she had been split in half. She could become whichever woman she decided, whichever side of her face she tilted to the light.” Stella vanishes from Desiree’s life and she also forever hides a part of herself.
But Stella contrasts with Jude’s boyfriend Reese, who also leaves behind half of his life, fleeing his childhood in order to become himself. And the vanishing half includes the sides of themselves that Kennedy and Jude don’t have access to because of Stella’s choice. And it even represents the dementia of the twins’ mother, Adele, at the end, her memories dissolving like pieces of paper in water.
By using the time jump technique, Bennett lays out a rich, multi-course meal of a novel. Other great books in this vein include A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and Trust Exercise by Susan Choi.
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