Before downloading this book on Audible, I had heard about it for a long time. Many people recommended it to me when it first came out. Originally published in June of 2020, this book from a Black woman author, Brit Bennet, could not have been released in a more relevant time for our nation. June 2020 was the month after George Floyd was murdered by police officers, all caught on video. June 2020 was the first month of the racial reckoning that has been brewing in America for hundreds of years. That was the month that White people could no longer pretend racism does not live ever present in our world.
Enter The Vanishing Half. Written from various perspectives over decades, this story tells of two light-skinned Black twins as girls, young adults, and as older women facing mental health and health struggles. The crux of the book happens early on when one of the twins decides to leave home and begins a new life passing as a White woman, married to a rich, White professor. The other twin stays in their small Louisiana hometown living as a Black woman. The rest of the novel organically compares and contrasts the lives of these two women and the lives of their daughters. It’s set in the early 1900s when marrying outside one’s race was illegal and social death by suicide.
It was fascinating to see how the lives of the twins’ daughters played out. One daughter chooses a partner who is trans, though Bennet never writes the word “transgender” in this piece. That is another very interesting element for me, to see how a trans person’s life could play out in the early 20th century. The daughter who was raised to think she is 100% White fortuitously meets her Black cousin in New York City when they are both involved in a play. The family secret slowly unravels though the twin who chose to live as a White woman furiously tries to cover it up to keep up the 20ish year charade.
I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I listened to it on Audible and liked the narrator’s voice and the characters she portrays. Sometimes the accent of a speaker would waver, but it was not very noticeable overall. I like Bennet’s style of writing and her word choice. I liked the way Bennet organized the novel, making a statement through the lives of her characters rather than blatantly analyzing racism and discrimination. The White twin leads a lavish lifestyle in California; the Black twin doesn’t have two nickels to rub together living in her hometown. The juxtapositions are there but could easily be missed.
I looked forward to gems of wisdom about social justice that I could underline. I found maybe two sentences that I could underline and that was pushing it. If a person reading this novel wasn’t attune to racism, queer-phobia, or overall social justice issues, that person might completely miss the point. This was evident when I Googled a specific question about the novel in preparing to write this post and found that the number one question about this book is “what is the point of this book?”. Perhaps this novel’s purpose isn’t to pedagogically teach people who are not familiar with these issues up close. Perhaps it is for people in marginalized communities to see themselves in these characters and the racism/transphobia they face. If so, Brit Bennet accomplished her goal. Because I was looking for this book to do the opposite, I found myself slightly disappointed. Still, this is a well written novel that is worth a read to satisfy curiosity about what it could be like if a Black person could infiltrate and become part of the 1920s White world. And the ripple effect on generations of family.
What books are you currently reading/listening to?