In the quiet little farm town of Mallard, nothing ever happens. Mallard, the town where the skin of the residents gets lighter with each generation. The biggest thing to happen to the town was the disappearance of the Vignes twins 14 years ago. And now in 1968, Lou LeBon, whose eyesight it must be said is questionable, has just seen one of the twins walking down the street. Walking down the street with a child whose skin is black as night. Naturally, this sends the little town into a gossip frenzy.
The disappearance of Stella and Desiree Vignes, two coloured twins, turned out to be no mystery at all. The twins had, much to the disgruntled inhabitants of Mallard, who had searched long and hard for them, simply ran away to New Orleans.
In New Orleans, the twins are living on the poverty line, and when Desiree loses her job Stella abandons Desiree leaving her a note,
“Sorry honey, but I’ve got to go my own way”.
From this point on, the twin’s lives diverge down completely different paths.
The skin of the twins is so light that they could easily pass themselves off as white, and this is what Stella does. Working as a secretary, Stella marries her boss and moves into an estate full of rich racists, bountiful bigots. Stella’s life is a complete sham, an act that she cannot drop for even one minute in the day. Like an actor cast in an eternal role, she never drops the façade. Stella has a daughter, Kennedy, whose skin is white.
Desiree’s life, although not a lie, is far from the comforts of Stella’s. Desiree ends up marrying an abusive husband and flees back to Mallard. Desiree has a daughter, Jude, whose skin is so dark that at times it almost seems blue.
The narrative jumps forward in time and it is only by complete chance that Jude, working as a waitress at a party, is shocked when she spies Stella. Up until then, nobody knew what had happened to her, the vanishing half. Jude eventually meets Kennedy and Stella’s whole fraudulent life is held in Jude’s hands.
Identity and deception are themes explored by Bennett. Not just hiding or changing one’s identity by the colour of their skin, but also changing and hiding one’s sexual identity. Jude starts dating a young man who is in fact, a woman who yearns to be a man, painfully taping her breasts flat to her chest and living as a man, while saving for transitional operations.
The first half of the novel is set in an era when the walls of segregation were being broken down, a transitional period. A period of instability and acts of violence, evidenced when a famous black actor moves into the estates where Stella and her husband live. They are eventually forced to leave when the constant harassment turns dangerous when bricks are thrown through their windows.
I thought it a wonderful touch with the daughters being complete opposites in skin tone. It opens the way for so many questions. Would Kennedy’s life have been different if she were as black as Jude? Would Reese have been attracted to Jude is she were as white as Kennedy. How can the shade of one’s skin hold so much power over a life? The nuances and subtilties of racism.
A wonderful read with so much food for thought. 4 Stars.
Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, and her debut novel The Mothers was a New York Times bestseller. Her second novel The Vanishing Half was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller. Her essays have been featured in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.