Literary fiction is usually either a big hit or a big miss for me. Fortunately, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is one of the best books I’ve read lately. A family drama spanning decades, this is a historical fiction with a diverse cast of characters with great characterisation. The central characters’ individual journeys are incredibly gripping and provide a haunting social commentary.
Star rating: 5 stars.
Desiree and Stella are twin sisters growing up in the small village of Mallard in Louisiana. Desiree is energetic and restless, where as Stella is reserved. They are often described as two halves of the same person. Desperate to escape their small town life, the girls run away together to New Orleans, starting a new life in their late teens. One day, Stella vanishes, and Desiree is left alone with no idea where her twin has disappeared to.
We follow Desiree and Stella as their lives diverge, and the lives of their daughters, cousins who do not know of each other’s existence. Desiree marries a Black man, Stella pretends to be white and marries a rich white man. Jude is Black, Kennedy is white. The daughters have two different upbringings, both completely different to their mothers and each other.
Stella’s choice to live her life as passing as white gives her many privileges, and her daughter Kennedy the same. But she is lonely and without her family, stuck as the housewife to a boring white guy when all she really wants is to go to college as she was unable to go when she was younger. Kennedy dropped out of college to pursue acting, much to Stella’s frustration.
Desiree’s husband beats her so one night she takes her daughter Jude and they run away. Returning to Mallard, Desiree sees her mother for the first time in years. It was only meant to be temporary but years later she’s still there, and Jude grows up in a town where her dark skin is judged and hated. Jude escapes this life, really making something of herself against the odds.
The best thing about this book is the contrasting stories and characters – all so well developed and individual. I was gripped from start to finish despite its slow pace. If you like books that really delve into what motivates and drives characters then this is a contemporary fiction for you.