The Vanishing Half "Almost" a Great Novel


The Vanishing Half (2020)

By Britt Bennett

Riverhead, 345 pages.





Scholars often claim that race is a social construct, a fiction we choose to believe. If sounds obtuse, read The Vanishing Half. Britt Bennett’s book is a novel, but it speaks a sort of truth. That’s why it tops a lot of lists of the best novels of 2020.


The Vanishing Half is a six-part series of vignettes set between 1954 to 1986. Its ground rule is set in the opening chapter. Mallard, Louisiana, is a “black” town with a difference established a century earlier: a scheme to breed away blackness. In Mallard, the whiter one appears, the higher one’s status.


The Vigne family bought into this. The problem, though, is the outside world. Lighter skin means something in Mallard, but not much beyond if one looks and acts black. That’s one of the reasons why the four sons of Blake and Adele Vigne are dead by age 30. The girls flee Mallard at age 16, with Stella passing for white, and Desiree moving to Washington, DC, where she works before marrying the dark-skinned Sam Winston. Together they have a daughter, Jude.


The Vanishing Half then spans the next 32 years in time. Desiree’s marriage falters and she hides out in Mallard, where her lover is the dark-skinned Early, who was supposed to find her and Jude for Sam. Stella, one the other hand, marries a white Boston banker’s son and settles into a life so bourgeois that she teaches statistics at California college, has a daughter named Kennedy, lives in posh neighborhoods, and even adopts racist attitudes toward African-Americans. It is a story of separations, Jude’s and Kennedy’s as well as Desiree’s and Stella’s. The opening chapter, “The Lost Twins,” makes us wonder if the paths of the two sisters will cross in the future, or whether either will ever again see their mother.


The children have crises of their own. Jude partners with Reese, and he has major identity issues. But there is never a question of Jude’s race. Like her father, she is dark-hued, though she certainly has a mind of her own and courage to spare. She eventually parlays her studies at UCLA into a medical degree. Kennedy rebels by becoming an actress, generally not the easiest ticket to a bourgeois life. The novel eventually takes us to New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis.


There’s a lot going on in Bennett’s 345-page book–perhaps too much. Like many novelists these days, Bennett tries to check all of the right boxes: race, gender identity, outings of various sorts, poverty, domestic violence, self-doubt, fluffy popular culture, and more. Would a very good novel have been even stronger had Ms. Bennett focused more narrowly? At times, the novel’s six parts function like a long play in which we wait to find out what coheres and what does not.


A line from the book’s third part sums its most fascinating exploration. To return to the lede on the social construction of race, Stella muses, “There was nothing to being white except boldness. You could convince anyone you belong somewhere if you acted like you did.” In this respect, The Vanishing Half is a reverse of Mark Twain’s last great novel, Pudd ’n head Wilson, which featured a slave who was white in all but demeanor and circumstance. Bennett infers appearances again when the whip-smart Jude goes to UCLA, but–shades of a Spike Lee rant–on a track scholarship. You might also pick up on long-standing discussions about “high yellow” women (those with light skin) as well as studies on passing for white.


If we put these in companion with other themes I mentioned, it means that some get shorter shrift than others. Shuffling too many “big” issues at one time comes fraught with danger. At what point does box checking become oversimplification? To be clear, I liked this book very much, but if pressed to judge whether it’s one of the best of 2020, I’d have to reply, “Almost.”


Rob Weir


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