TW: colourism (pervasive throughout), racism (internalised, community-based), lynching (semi-graphic), domestic abuse (semi-graphic), sexual assault (throughout, semi-graphic, including abuse of minors), transphobia (CW).
I was really excited to read recently that The Vanishing Half has been longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction! I know that there are a lot of issues around this prize, but I am glad to see this book getting the attention it deserves. I do plan to read a lot of the other long listed books (I’ve actually already read and reviewed Exciting Times) but many of the others have also caught my eye. I’m particularly excited to read Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, the first trans author to be nominated for the Women’s Prize. On a related note, I was excited to discover while reading that The Vanishing Half also contains trans representation. So, let’s get into why I enjoyed this book so much.
The Vanishing Half tells the story of twin sisters Desiree and Stella, who grew up in Mallard. In Mallard, being light-skinned is desirable. The town is a Black town, yet it is filled with rampant colourism. Desiree and Stella, inseparable in childhood, flee Mallard together, and end up taking very different paths throughout their lives. Desiree marries a Black man, and has a daughter, Jude. Stella, however, lives her life passing as a white woman, marrying a wealthy white man and having daughter Kennedy. The main bulk of the story picks up when Desiree is beaten by her husband, Sam, and leaves in the night with her young daughter, fleeing back to Mallard.
Back in Mallard, Jude’s dark skin is a sticking point for the residents, including Desiree’s mother. This colourism is very prominent throughout the book, which is a theme I personally haven’t seen explored in such depth in literature before. The way it’s explored is really interesting, with the different characters’ opinions and own personal prejudices explored. While Desiree loves Jude the way she is, Jude tries to lighten her skin with the help of her grandmother, and Stella uses her light skin to pose as a white woman in order to get a good job, rejecting her Blackness entirely. Stella’s character especially was a fascinating insight into internalised racism and shame that Black people may have felt in mid-20th Century America. Other themes explored in depth in this novel include sexual assault, family, and denial. It also explores racism (including lynching), trauma, domestic abuse, and touches on transphobia. As such, this novel does deal with a lot of heavy themes, but I felt as though it treated them sensitively and was not overly graphic.
The character I enjoyed reading the most was a toss-up between Desiree and Jude. I really enjoyed Jude’s relationship with Reese, and I do wish this had had a bit more attention but, due to where it happens in the narrative, there wasn’t as much time to expand on it as I would have liked. Give me more, Brit Bennett! Stella’s character was one of the most interesting in the book, and while her motives were well-written, I still harboured some of Desiree’s resentment towards her. I find it hard to like dishonest characters, so while I didn’t particularly like Stella because of her lies and some of the choices she made, I still found her character very engaging and well-written.
Brit Bennett’s writing just flowed throughout this novel. If you’re a regular reader here you’ll know I’m a fan of experimentally written novels, which aren’t for everyone. The writing here, however, is something that I do think any reader will appreciate and enjoy. It’s straightforward, easy to read, and engaging. I read this whole book in two sittings, and the pages and time just flew by. While there is a plot, the main driving force was the excellently written characters of the book, and I was just gripped. I had to know if Stella would reunite with Desiree. I had to know if she’d tell her family the truth. I had to know if Desiree would flee Mallard again. Thankfully, all my questions were answered. I do think this book could have been longer, but perhaps I’m just greedy? Thankfully, my greed can be somewhat sated, as this is Brit Bennett’s sophomore novel, so her debut novel is out there waiting for me to get my hands on it.
If you couldn’t tell, I highly recommend this book. The cast of characters are diverse and engaging, and the writing just flows by. Of course, the thematic exploration in this book will mean that some readers don’t feel comfortable reading it, which I totally understand. However, if you are comfortable reading books that discuss these topics, I would love to hear your thoughts on this if you pick it up, or if you have already read it, because I know there’s been a fair bit of buzz around it on book twitter and bookstagram since its release. While the Women’s Prize has its issues, I really hope that The Vanishing Half makes the shortlist, because it deserves praise and attention.