How the other half lives

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett. Contributed by Penguin Random House
Caption
“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett. Contributed by Penguin Random House

Twin sisters lead radically different lives in Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half’

When the light-almost-white-skinned Desiree Vignes returns to her hometown of Mallard, Louisiana, with a blue-black baby in tow, her presence upends the narrative of the town and who belongs there. Mallard, founded by Desiree’s great-great-great grandfather, was a town full of mulattos that got lighter every generation: “fair and blonde and redheaded, the darkest ones no swarthier than a Greek? Was this who counted for colored in America, who whites wanted to keep separate? Well, how could they tell the difference?”

That meditation touches off the subject of Brit Bennett's sophomore novel "The Vanishing Half."

Desiree Vignes is a twin, and in 1968, at 16 years old, Desiree and sister Stella decide to run away from their home in St. Landry Parish and head for New Orleans, where they work as laundresses. One day Desiree comes back to their apartment to find a note from her sister saying they must go their own ways.

Desiree continues to live her life as a woman of color but learns through some detective work that, frustrated with the dearth of opportunities she’s given as a black person, Stella has decided to pass for white.

The author has a knack for writing one-liners that sum up the tension in her work, and in the first chapter she writes: “you can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood. Somehow, the Vignes twins believed themselves capable of both.”

Told in a forward-moving fashion with short flashbacks, "The Vanishing Half" spans 40 years from the 1950s to the 1990s. A meditation on concealment and performance, Desiree often thinks about Stella's disappearance: "Who didn't want to get over on white folks for a change? But the passe blanc were a mystery. You could never meet one who'd passed over undetected, the same way you'd never know someone who successfully faked her own death; the act could only be successful if no one ever discovered the ruse."

Jude, Desiree’s blue-black daughter, nicknamed “Tar Baby” has that same itch her sister and aunt had, and leaves home as soon as she’s old enough, making her way out to Los Angeles for school. Scenes in California come alive under Bennett’s expertise in a way that the Louisiana portions cannot, and Jude’s chance encounter almost 2,000 miles away from the Vignes’ point of origin re-inserts the missing sibling back into the narrative. When Stella finally steps back into the frame, layers of concealment fall away, but the reverberations extend far beyond the sibling bond.

Disappearing acts run in the family, and eventually they get old. Through expert manipulation Bennett forces readers to understand that resolution and return aren’t the same thing.

In a country that for centuries had a vested interest in segregation, racial passing has been the subject of plays, novels and movies for more than a hundred years. Early 20th century authors like Charles Chesnutt and James Weldon Johnson wrote about passing. Regina M. Anderson wrote a one-act play titled “The Man Who Passed.”

Two of the most famous depictions of racially ambiguous characters seeking to better their fortunes come from Fannie Hurst’s 1933 bestselling novel turned major motion picture “Imitation of Life,” and Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella, “Passing.” In the latter work two biracial childhood friends decide to part ways and one decides to live as black, while the other decides to live as white, with disastrous results.

Most of the aforementioned works end in death for the white-passing character. Bennett nimbly avoids the “tragic mulatto” trope but falls into other typical character expectations like the bounty hunter with a soft spot and the prodigal child who returns home never to roam.

Bennett’s stunning debut novel “The Mothers” was heavily lauded for its depiction of the inner lives of women and the choices they make. Like her first novel, “The Vanishing Half” deals with desire (literally: the character’s name is Desiree), inheritance and the tension between community and ambition. Using the community as a critical foil also exists in this latest novel, but to a lesser degree since the narrative takes place across thousands of miles spanning Los Angeles, Louisiana, Boston and Washington D.C. Here, the community voice only tugs at the characters when they are in Mallard or are thinking about it.

Bennett is a masterful pace keeper and the story moves forward at a nimble clip, but the resonant introspection that made “The Mothers” a critical success takes a backseat and the psychology of passing goes unexamined in favor of moving along the plot. If her first novel was morally fraught, her sophomore effort is aesthetically so. At its core, the novel’s tension is about how people perceive the characters, what they decide to pretend to be and if they can execute the ruse — not how the characters feel about themselves.

With echoes of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Bennett’s sophomore novel “The Vanishing Half” is an engrossing, engaging read and an ambitious undertaking for a nation that is still wrestling with the fallout of segregation.

FICTION

‘The Vanishing Half’

by Brit Bennett

Penguin Random House

352 pages, $27