Well, it’s positively shameful that my last review was posted in February. Frankly, I’m so far behind on reviews not sure how I will catch up, but my next few may be pretty short. I have still been reading, but the overwhelming nature of life lately has left me both without time or motivation to put my thoughts in writing. Frankly, that’s not really fair to the books or the authors who took the time to put pen to paper with their own thoughts. But that’s the nature of life, as well.
Identical twins born in a small light-skinned black community in the South take diverging pathways in adulthood. Desiree stays in Mallard with her daughter, embracing her identity as a black woman in the South. Stella flees her home and disappears, identifying as white as a way to increase her station in life. The story spans decades and geography to show the result their choices have on their own lives and those of the people they love.
It has been quite some time since I’ve finished The Vanishing Half. What a book it is. This novel has one of the most compelling and unique storylines I’ve ever read, and it makes for an excellent discussion book for book groups. It’s very much about identity. On the surface, racial identity is at the forefront, but that’s not the full spectrum of what this book explores. Under the surface are discussions of gender identity, friendship, dynamics and expectations of family, and class. There are more thematic elements peppered throughout, which makes this book a fascinating exploration of the human condition.
The most fascinating thing about this book was it’s tackling of the race issue and prejudice in general. There were all these multi-layered varying degrees of racism, including among members of the black community. Mallard, though a black town, was portrayed as being intolerant of those with darker skin. They took pride in the years’ long dilution of the African ancestry among their members. Desiree’s daughter, with her dark skin, was bullied and rejected by her peers as inferior. This was positively mind boggling to me. This is representative of the intense reach of ugly and hateful ideas that permeate everything they touch. If you hear a lie long enough and with enough passion and intensity, it becomes your truth even if an outsider looking in could see the notion for what it is: purely ridiculous. Damn, if that’s not relevant today, I don’t know what is!
One of the most powerful themes in this book was the relation of identity to happiness. Is a rejection of one’s identity in order to find happiness a benefit or an obstacle at achieving true happiness? Is it really better to seek a new and better life if it means denying our vulnerabilities and losing sight of our truth? Now this next part is going to get mildly spoiler-y so skip if you like, but I feel it’s important to say. This book, and this metaphor in general, would be incomplete without Reese. Reese is a transgender character. In the novel, we see Stella rejecting her true identity because embracing it would be difficult. She desperately wants to be seen as someone she’s not because she believes who she really is will be rejected by society. She does, essentially, vanish. Reese has the opposite character arc. Who he truly is inside is rejected and ridiculed by a large sector of the population, and he’s faced with the choice to either embrace and take on that rejection, or continue hiding his truth because life would be easier that way. Stella craves camouflage. Reese craves transparency and clarity. Both want acceptance, but they want it for different reasons. One way leads to enlightenment. One way leads to a mental prison in which one is alone in the dark without the comfort originally sought.
Wow, profound stuff. I’ll stop spoiling things now. This isn’t really a book about what happens. Anyone reading for a thrilling revelation is going to be left with disappointment. This is a book so much rooted in the journey. Sometimes the journey is slow and not all that much happens. I didn’t feel quite as connected to these characters as I could have been. I’m not sure why that is, but I felt more like the outsider looking in than I did an active participant immersed in the story. It’s like watching a sitcom and you’re really getting into it and then that laugh track disrupts your thoughts and you realize just how far you’re being held at arm’s length. But don’t expect a laugh track here, this certainly is no comedy.
Overall, this book is incredibly thought provoking, and it is very well written. I will definitely read something else by Bennett when I get the chance.
Published June 2, 2020 by Riverhead Books. ISBN 9780349701462. 343 pages.