Identicals and Identity – Malini Dutta

Apr 16, 2021 | Bookworm | 3 comments

The Vanishing Half
a Novel by Brit Bennett
352 pp

Two sisters.
Identically beautiful, fair-skinned and hazel-eyed, with only the difference of seven minutes between them. Through generations of ‘adding cream to coffee’ there is apparently no ‘coffee’ discernible anymore. Smart, ambitious, with dreams and desires reaching far beyond the confines of a speck of a town.  At sixteen, in domestic service in a ‘cream’ household, where not a drop of coffee has ever stained the cream.
What are their choices?
Brit Bennett has followed her powerful debut novel ‘The Mothers’ with a charged story exploring the nature of race and identity. Mallard, a tiny town in Louisiana founded by a freed slave, is more an idea than a place. A child born of a white father and enslaved mother, Alphonse Decuir dreamed of a community of people like himself who would never be accepted as white, but who refused to be treated as ‘Negroes’.  His vision achieved success in creating a light-skinned population within a few generations that fiercely prized its lightness, and his great-great-great-granddaughters Desiree and Stella Vignes epitomized the fulfilment of this dream.
What is their life?
The girls have grown up with their mother struggling for money after their father was dragged out of the house by white men and lynched before their horrified 6-year-old eyes. Escape from nightmares, escape from the indignities of poverty, escape from the stultifying small-town routine, escaping to a larger world brimming with opportunities has been the girls’ dream which they finally achieve by running away to New Orleans at sixteen.
What is their identity?
Bennett has deliberately used a literal black-and -white motif as the sisters’ lives diverge, ‘splitting as evenly as their shared egg’. Stella disappears one day and eventually Desiree marries the ‘darkest man she could find’, a marriage that was not destined to last long. The book opens with Desiree walking through her hometown after being missing for 14 years, carrying with her a little girl ‘as black as tar’.
In the meantime, Stella has fashioned a new identity for herself, passing as white, erasing her family and all blackness from her life.  She becomes the adored wife of a rich, white banker and the mother of a daughter with milky skin and silky, blonde hair.
As the inter-generational story unfolds from the Jim Crow era to the 1980s, contrasts tether and propel the lives of the twins and their daughters. Black and white, rich and poor, struggle and privilege, escape and return, secrets and discoveries, cleave the bond between Desiree and Stella, while curiously intersecting the lives of their daughters, Jude and Kennedy.
How do the sisters’ choice of identity shape their own happiness, extending to their next generation?
Stella’s choice necessarily makes her ‘the vanishing half’ sentencing her mother and sister to a lifetime of wondering and waiting. Cocooned in luxury, she spends her days floating in her backyard pool, living in an emotionally barren world of loneliness and fear. Her niece knows that her aunt exists somewhere, sub-consciously searching for her mother’s face among strangers; her daughter can only make blind guesses about the void of her mother’s family. The fallout of the twins’ choices, and the resultant arc of their daughters’ lives described in rich, psychological detail elevates ‘The Vanishing Half’ well above other books dealing with themes of lost family and the scars of racism.
Growing up in India, and its cultural obsession with fair skin, ‘colorstruck’ Mallard resonated with me. The author repeatedly brings attention to the darkness of Desiree’s daughter Jude, describing her skin as blue-black and midnight. Perhaps an uncomfortable reminder of their colored ancestry, Jude was an affront to the town. ‘They were not used to a dark child and were surprised how much it upset them’. When she was able to get away to Los Angeles for college, her blackness was the first and mostly the only quality that registered on people’s consciousness – everything else about her was invisible.  Jude’s struggle against being diminished by racism, from both within her community and outside it, channels her strength to become a pillar for a different kind of struggle for identity: that of her transgender boyfriend Reese and his quest for acceptance.
Bennett’s unflinching use of N-words in Stella’s voice, as Stella determinedly holds on to her carefully constructed white persona, is both powerful and poignant. In the 1960s timeline, Stella’s tactics as she vociferously objects to a colored family moving into her wealthy sub-division leave readers cringing. Her fear of being exposed by her own community while she manages to deceive the white community is a brilliant exploration of a different aspect of race: outsiders will only see color, but your own community knows exactly who you are, for better or for worse.
Lyrical descriptions, rich dialogue and discrete timelines that anchor shifting perspectives among the four main characters will appeal to readers who enjoy family sagas. The events are spread out over a comparatively brief 30-year span, the focus always on the shadow cast by the mysterious disappearance of one twin. Desiree and Stella, with their daughters, Jude and Kennedy, move the canvas from the rural South to gritty night-clubs in L.A and the rarefied world of rich, exclusive neighborhoods. The supporting characters in their orbit, especially Early Jones, Desiree’s eventual partner, add to the depth of the narrative. The juxtaposition of Jude and her vanished aunt, Stella, carries the weight of the storyline. One, for whom there was no escape from color, forges her own identity through daily struggles. The other, who escaped from her own color, struggled daily to maintain her non-identity – ‘She had done one interesting thing in her life and would spend the rest of her life hiding it’.
While addressing layers of complexities and thorny issues of race, the success of ‘The Vanishing Half’ lies in creating an engaging work of fiction, where readers are irresistibly pulled into the lives of the characters. When I first read it, curiosity about Stella’s life and whether her sister would ever come face to face with her, and whether her husband and daughter would discover her falsehoods, pushed the story along. Bennett unspools the story with remarkable restraint, resisting dramatic denouements in favor of gentle highs and lows. This had seemed unsatisfactory initially until it becomes clear that the authenticity imparted by this technique mirrors the way real life flows, not always with neat outcomes, but always with unexpected insights.

 

Malini Dutta

Malini Dutta

Malini Dutta is a bookseller at an indie bookstore – a quintessential corner bookstore in the heart of a classic New England town. At a workplace defined as ‘ Where great books and people meet’ she has the pleasure of meeting both every single day. For many years a library volunteer, she enjoys creating the perfect connection between a reader of any age and interest and exactly the right book waiting to have its pages turned.

3 Comments

  1. Chandreyee

    What a well written review. The cultural comparison resonated especially well. I can’t wait to read this book now.

    Reply
    • Malini Dutta

      Thanks, Chandreyee!! So happy you took the time to read the review. It will be very satisfying for me if it makes you want to read the book.

      Reply
    • Malini Dutta

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Chandreyee! It will be very satisfying if this review makes you want to read the book.

      Reply

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