Book review: In The Vanishing Half, identical twins live as different races

Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half hinges on the disparate lives of the Vignes sisters. PHOTOS: EMMA TRIM, RIVERHEAD BOOKS

FICTION

THE VANISHING HALF

By Brit Bennett

Riverhead Books/ Paperback/ 343 pages/ $29.43/ Books Kinokuniya/ Available here

3.5 stars

It has been a New York Times bestseller for 11 weeks, is listed as one of Vanity Fair's best books of the year to date and is one of Time Magazine's 45 New Books You Need To Read This Summer.

In June, HBO paid a seven-figure sum for the rights to turn it into a limited TV series.

Yet there is something missing in The Vanishing Half. American author Brit Bennett's second novel hinges on the disparate lives of the Vignes sisters - identical, light-skinned twins who grow up in Mallard, Louisiana, a fictional town of people of colour in the Jim Crow-era south, where darkness equals trouble and locals pride themselves on the fairness of their skin.

Not black, but not white either, they are "fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek", and with every generation they strive to create "a more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before".

Lightness does not save the twins' father, who is lynched before their young eyes by violent, angry white men jealous of his business acumen.

The senselessness of this trauma and the colourism of the town drive the twins, at 16, to run away from Mallard in 1954 and start new lives in New Orleans.

From there, their lives and their stories diverge, "splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find".

With creamy skin, hazel eyes and wavy hair, the twins can pass as white, which means that anyone who does not know their racial history would never think otherwise.

When Stella takes a job as an office secretary, a job exclusive to white women, she decides to abandon her home town, her mother and her twin without warning, and pursue a life of safety and privilege as a white woman full-time.

Desiree moves to Washington D.C. and marries Sam, a black man who becomes abusive. The story opens with Desiree's return to Mallard, 14 years after running away, now with her "blueblack" daughter Jude in tow.

Despite her clear intelligence and athletic talents, Jude is bullied and ostracised throughout her childhood because of how black she is.

When she eventually leaves Mallard for Los Angeles on a track scholarship, she falls in love with Reese, a transgender man who started life as Therese. Together, they subtly tease apart the nature of identity - how much of our identity is innate, how much is choice and how much of it is created by or for us?

Though the parallels of gender determinism and racial identity are interesting, Bennett does not flesh the connections out.

Having a transgender character in the novel reads like an attempt to placate calls for diversity of representation in literature and is a distraction from the juicier ideological foundation of the novel, which is the performative nature of racial identity and the absurdity of racism.

The most interesting and heart-wrenching scenes in the book belong to Stella, who has married a blue-blooded white man from New England and moved to a wealthy gated community in the Brentwood suburb of Los Angeles.

Acting as white throughout her adult life has hollowed her out. She is numb, reserved and constantly afraid of being found out.

When a black family moves in across the street, it is Stella who vocally opposes their arrival at a community meeting, because she is scared they will recognise her for who she is - not white - and ruin her perfect life with her husband and blonde, blue-eyed daughter.

As she fights for survival, she eventually befriends the new neighbours, and the novel is kept afloat by the moral reckoning she experiences while epitomising and challenging the internalised oppression of white supremacy.

The Vanishing Half comes alive in these emotional and intellectual interrogations of race, colour and identity.

If only Desiree had received the same narrative treatment. We never learn why she married "the blackest man she could find" or what life was like for her when she returned to Mallard with a deeply black child.

Nevertheless, Bennett is a skilled writer who keeps the pages turning, and a book like The Vanishing Half will engender desperately needed conversations in America and around the world.

If you like this, read: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books , 2014, $19.80, available at bit.ly/Americanah_CNA). Ifemelu and Obinze meet and fall in love in military-ruled Nigeria. Ifemelu leaves the constraints of home for America, only to experience, for the first time, what it means to be black, while Obinze endures the dangerous life of an undocumented immigrant in post 9-11 London. How will they reconnect with each other and their homeland when they return 15 years later?

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