The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, deserves the attention it’s received as a New York Times bestseller and a nominee for the National Book Award. The novel begins by introducing Desiree Vignes a girl who had left home with her twin sister fourteen years ago in 1954. She is now back, with her daughter in tow. They arrive in Mallard, a town where “Alphonse Decuir in 1848 . . . stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negros. A third place.”
The story itself becomes “a third place” where characters who are outsiders to the white, straight, attractive majority around them look for acceptance. Some characters like Jude, Desiree’s dark-skinned daughter, find that acceptance, even if temporarily, through connections with others who willingly embrace them for who they are. However, other characters, such as Stella, Desiree’s twin who passes as White, are accepted only if they maintain the façade of what they want others to perceive them to be. Bennett accomplishes a difficult task by fleshing out other options about her characters’ identities and whether they will be accepted in the community. What begins as an exploration of race, finishes as a larger consideration of identity and what role personal choice has in the creation of who we are.
Through the narrative voices of Desiree and other characters connected to her, the novel explores the complexities of identity—How does a person “become”? Is it through our genetics that race and gender arise? If “nature” is overpowered by “nurture,” are we largely products of our environment? What role does an individual play in deciding their own identity, one that may be contrary to their upbringing? These are heady questions, yet the author controls the narrative so that it isn’t overwhelmed by the existential questions that arise.