In this historical novel that came out in 2020, Brit Bennet kneads the dough of the well-used ‘passing’ plot afresh to spin an intriguing new tale. The Vanishing Half is the story of the identical twins – Desiree and Stella – born in the fictional village-small town in Louisiana called Mallard. The inhabitants of Mallard, most of whom are very light-skinned Negros, are afflicted with colorism in addition to externally inflicted and pervasive racism. Growing up, Desiree is the bolder one, the one who leads the two to run away from home in 1954 at sixteen to New Orleans. But Stella is the one who does the most courageous thing by adopting and living with a new identity. Stella dares to pass as a white woman. Marries a white man. Has a child. A blond-haired child. Desiree abandons her abusive dark-skinned husband and returns to Mallard with her soot-black daughter named Jude. This is the point at which the novel begins. Not when the twins are born. Not when their father is murdered by white racists. Not when their ancestor founds the town in 1848. This is one of the most remarkable things about the novel – the non-linear, exquisitely disjointed narrative.
The fulcrum of the story is the moment Stella starts to pass as white. The rest of the novel comprises layers of backstory held together by the tense web of suspense spun by the reality of a coloured woman, a Negro, passing as white, the sheer anxiety or terror of being found out. And the anxiety is infectious. One can hardly guess what will happen next. I nearly died of suspense, wondering whether she will eventually be found out and how. And what tragedy will follow.
The story marches along a hallway flanked by open doorways into the past, into which you must peep before you proceed. The story unfolds in loops of flashback. The scrambled chronology, however, is not disorienting but serves to keep you sweetly puzzled, perpetually on tenterhooks. Quite unlike the confounding and nearly chaotic narrative style in Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters – a book you have to read two times to understand. She catapults you to a point far into the narrative which immediately tantalizes you with the prospect of surprising backstory. She’s in absolute control of the material.
The telling of the story is a technical accomplishment imbued with deep sensibilities and psychological nuance. The result is a very human tale. A tale of the burden of identity – racial identity, sexual identity. The novel points up the abiding importance of Dubois’s colour line. And the intersectional identity of Jude’s lover, Reese, who seems to have been set up as a counterpoint to Stella. He is a Negro trans man who, like Stella also abandons his people, but unlike her, dares to be himself. It even touches on the very dignity of personal identity as Alzheimer’s nibbles at the nuggets of memory that make up one’s sense of self. But even here, she manages to infuse some humour.
But I really wanted to know how Blake, her white husband would react to the revelation that his darling wife has been living a lie. It seems that the novel just decides to end rather abruptly with this unmet expectation. One wanted to know whether it would be like the white man in An Imperative Duty who vows to keep his wife’s secret and moves with her to Italy.
Brit Bennet is good.
I’m already looking for her other novel The Mothers.