Dialogue Books 11th June
Twins, inseperable as children, ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds: one black and one white.
The Vignes sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything, including their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. Across the country, the other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing about her past. Still, although separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, The Vanishing Half is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of race, gender, and identity, and the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s desires and expectations.
I was delighted to be offered a copy of this book by Millie Seaward at Dialogue Books – Thank You. I was a big fan of The Mothers by Brit Bennett, you can read my review here
This book was such an informative read for me, whilst also being engaging and highly readable. As the description indicates this is a book about twins, mixed race in a town populated predominantly by mixed race families where lighter skin colour is seen as more desirable. In adulthood Stella obtains a secretarial job, this is the 1950s and the job is given on the assumption of her being white, her pale skin allows her to pass as such and therein for her begins a lifetime lived as a lie. Through necessity she becomes estranged from her twin sister and her family, keeping her secret close, fearful even to disclose her heritage to her husband or daughter.
Time moves on and the twins both have daughters of their own. Stella’s daughter, Kennedy identifies as white, while Jude is black – ‘black as tar’, ‘Blueblack’ a skin tone perceived as seemingly universally unattractive – a view internalised by Jude and for her another inhibitor to success. Inevitably the girl’s paths crossed and secrets are revealed.
Told over a 40 year time period and set in America this book details the lives of 2 generations of the Vignes family – the twins and their daughters. It reflects changes in legislation in terms of equality laws but explores racism, sexuality and gender throughout. For Stella living as a white woman, she is oppressed as a female in the 50s and 60s but feels forced to adopt racist attitudes of the time, prevalent in her peer group, but the reality is for her, being white led to opportunities otherwise unavailable to her. Jude on the other hands succeeds as a black woman in the 90s but her achievements are met with suspicion – that someone her colour can succeed. The story is layered with many strands and I enjoyed it a lot.
I found this book so enlightening, not only in terms of race, which I knew was never simplified to black and white but this book explores this in an open and accessible way. Without spoilers, one of the key characters in the book was transgender and I was so impressed with how this story unfolded, the writing detailed a love without prejudice and I found myself learning and understanding through this work of fiction.
As I write this, and as I was reading this book it seemed all the more timely as the world remembers George Floyd murdered last month in Minneapolis due to a police restraint. #BlackLivesMatters is trending and the world is largely (I believe) shocked and dismayed that here we are in 2020 and inequality seems further away than ever, racism is rife alongside right wing leadership.
For me fiction is and always has been an accessible way to learn, be educated and increase my knowledge and this book was spot on for that, in reading books such as these we are forced I think to reflect on our own bias and for me as a white female, my privilege. Equally fiction is one forum I use to talk to my children – both boys about their own identity and white privilege and to understand what is happening and the need for things to change. I am sad and a little embarrassed to say I do find race difficult to talk about and fiction gives me a voice, a medium through which to communicate.
So this book, which I thought was incredibly well written and one I enjoyed immensely is definitely one I will be recommending highly. Thank you again to the publisher for sending me this finished copy.
About the Author
Brit Bennett is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Mothers; a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for the best first book, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award; and a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree. Her work has been featured in the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Paris Review and Jezebel.