What is identity? How does identity affect your life? Bennett explores these questions in her most recent novel, “The Vanishing Half.”
Bennett is the author of the bestselling novel “The Mothers,” as well as four other novels. She has also been nominated for the NBCC John Leonard Prize for the best first book. Her work has also been featured in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and The Paris Review.
Black twin sisters, who are inseparable growing up, are raised in the Deep South in the 1950s, in a town that doesn’t appear on any map or encyclopedia, called Mallard.
“Blueblack’’ is how one of the sisters is described in the novel. “Like she [had] flown directly from Africa,” the observer continued. This is how the reader is introduced to Desiree Vignes, one of the twins. Before the reader learns anything else about Desiree, they already have this vivid image of Desiree’s skin in their head, skin so black it is somehow darker than black, immediately tying Deisree’s identity to the color of her skin.
However, Stella Vignes, Desiree’s sister, is not “Blue black.” Instead, she was born so light that she could pass as white, which is exactly what she does.
Racial identity is an important theme throughout the novel. Desiree has to live with her blackness her entire life, by working as a caterer and other low-end jobs. Stella Vignes on the other hand, relishes in the fact that she is lighter than Desiree, taking a desk job in Washington D.C., she meets her white husband, who has no idea Stella’s secret.
Desiree, however, lives a different life. She is a runner, and is so good at running that she winds up getting herself into UCLA on a track scholarship. But while there, she faces some hardships: living in an apartment in the middle of Los Angeles with no air conditioning, holes in the ceiling, and rats, Desiree struggles to get by everyday.
Stella also relocates to Los Angeles with her husband, but lives a completely opposite life, she makes herself comfortable by moving into the Hollywood hills in a neighborhood littered with white American homes. A neighborhood so white, they have a homeowners association in which at each meeting, they make it their goal to keep African Americans out of the community. Even Stella, the secret African American, speaks up about her distaste of blacks moving into her community.
Stella does not have to struggle externally, like Desiree has; however, we learn about Stella’s internal struggles, such as her strained relationship with her daughter. The reason being is that her daughter constantly asks about Stella’s past, and in response, she has to lie about it to keep her secret safe, which puts a strain on their relationship. Stella’s relationship with her husband is also strained by the fact that he knows nothing about Stella’s past. He constantly questions her about it, but she does not want to expose her big secret.
My one major gripe about the novel is Bennett’s use of LGBTQ+ issues. Desiree is dating a transgender male, whom she met at school. The two also have drag queen friends who they constantly console in. These characters go nowhere and are extremely flat and lacking emotion. It is important to address these topics of course, as it gives a minority group a chance to be represented in contemporary fiction, however, it felt disingenuine and a cash grab to attract an audience. On the other hand, the introduction of those characters relates to the theme of the novel: identity.
The Vignes twin sagas is surely an important one in today’s day and age. Although this book about identity is set between 1950 and 1990, the ideas could not be more relevant today. Why should one person be labeled worse than another because of the color of their skin? They shouldn’t; and people should not have to lie about the color of their skin to live a better life, as shown through Stella.
Every single character in this novel is struggling in some way with identity. Whether it be because of their race or not wanting to settle down anywhere, as shown through the character of Early, it is important to highlight that we all struggle sometime in our lives with who we really are and who we want to become, and that is where Bennett shines in this novel.
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