Brit Bennett's 'The Vanishing Half' Sets the Stage for Society's Fixation on Labels
The best-selling writer is back with new fiction about racism, family ties and identity
Brit Bennett, who burst into the book world with her best-selling 2016 debut The Mothers, is back with an outstanding, thought-provoking new novel about race, family ties and identity, both personal and cultural. The Vanishing Half focuses on two sisters — identical twins, Desiree and Stella Vignes — and, decades later, their daughters.
Light-skinned African Americans, the twins flee their tiny Louisiana town as teenagers in the 1950s and end up taking very different paths. Stella marries a white man and moves to California, keeping her roots hidden from her new family and leaving Desiree bewildered and heartbroken. Desiree ends an abusive marriage and returns with her daughter to their hometown. Each of the four main characters is affected differently by Stella's long-ago, life-changing decision — the centerpiece of this story that serves as a quiet condemnation of society's fixation on simplistic black-and-white labels.
Here, the first chapter of her exceptional new novel.
The Vignes twins vanished on August 14, 1954, right after the Founder's Day dance, which, everyone realized later, had been their plan all along. Stella, the clever one, would have predicted that the town would be distracted. Sun-drunk from the long barbecue in the town square, where Willie Lee, the butcher, smoked racks of ribs and brisket and hot links. Then the speech by Mayor Fontenot, Father Cavanaugh blessing the food, the children already fidgety, picking flecks of crispy chicken skin from plates held by praying parents. A long afternoon of celebration while the band played, the night ending in a dance in the school gymnasium, where the grown folks stumbled home after too many cups of Trinity Thierry's rum punch, the few hours back in that gym pulling them tenderly toward their younger selves.
On any other night, Sal Delafosse might have peeked out his window to see two girls walking under moonlight. Adele Vignes would have heard the floorboards creak. Even Lou LeBon, closing down the diner, might have seen the twins through the foggy glass panes. But on Founder's Day, Lou's Egg House closed early. Sal, feeling suddenly spry, rocked to sleep with his wife. Adele snored through her cups of rum punch, dreaming of dancing with her husband at homecoming. No one saw the twins sneak out, exactly how they'd intended.
The idea hadn't been Stella's at all — during that final summer, it was Desiree who'd decided to run away after the picnic. Which should not have been surprising, perhaps. Hadn't she, for years, told anyone who would listen that she couldn't wait to leave Mallard? Mostly she'd told Stella, who indulged her with the patience of a girl long used to hearing delusions. To Stella, leaving Mallard seemed as fantastical as flying to China. Technically possible, but that didn't mean that she could ever imagine herself doing it. But Desiree had always fantasized about life outside of this little farm town. When the twins saw Roman Holiday at the nickel theater in Opelousas, she'd barely been able to hear the dialogue over the other colored kids in the balcony, rowdy and bored, tossing popcorn at the white people sitting below. But she'd pressed against the railing, transfixed, imagining herself gliding above the clouds to some far-off place like Paris or Rome. She'd never even been to New Orleans, only two hours away.
"Only thing waitin for you out there is wildness,” her mother always said, which of course, only made Desiree want to go even more. The twins knew a girl named Farrah Thibodeaux who, a year ago, had fled to the city and it sounded so simple. How hard could leaving be if Farrah, one year older than they, had done it? Desiree imagined herself escaping into the city and becoming an actress. She'd only starred in one play in her life — Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade — but when she'd taken center stage, she'd felt, for a second, that maybe Mallard wasn't the dullest town in America. Her classmates cheering for her, Stella receding into the darkness of the gym, Desiree feeling like only herself for once, not a twin, not one half of an incomplete pair. But the next year, she'd lost the role of Viola in Twelfth Night to the mayor's daughter, after her father had made a last-second donation to the school, and after an evening sulking in the stage wing as Mary Lou Fontenot beamed and waved to the crowd, she told her sister that she could not wait to leave Mallard.
"You always say that,” Stella said.
"Because it's always true."
But it wasn't, not really. She didn't hate Mallard as much as she felt trapped by its smallness. She'd trampled the same dirt roads her entire life; she'd carved her initials on the bottom of school desks that her mother had once used, and that her children would someday, feeling her jagged scratching with their fingers. And the school was in the same building it'd always been, all the grades together, so that even moving up to Mallard High hadn't felt like a progression at all, just a step across the hallway. Maybe she would have been able to endure all this if it weren't for everyone's obsession with lightness. Syl Guillory and Jack Richard arguing in the barber shop about whose wife was fairer, or her mother yelling after her to always wear a hat, or people believing ridiculous things, like drinking coffee or eating chocolate while pregnant might turn a baby dark. Her father had been so light that, on a cold morning, she could turn his arm over to see the blue of his veins. But none of that mattered when the white men came for him, so how could she care about lightness after that?
She barely remembered him now; it scared her a little. Life before he died seemed like only a story she'd been told. A time when her mother hadn't risen at dawn to clean white people's houses or taken in extra washing on the weekends, clotheslines zigzagging across their living room. The twins used to love hiding behind the quilts and sheets before Desiree realized how humiliating it was, your home always filled with strangers’ dirty things.
"If it was true, then you'd do something about it,” Stella said.
She was always so practical. On Sunday nights, Stella ironed her clothes for the entire week, unlike Desiree, who rushed around each morning to find a clean dress and finish the homework crushed in the bottom of her book bag. Stella liked school. She'd earned top marks in arithmetic since kindergarten, and during her sophomore year, Mrs. Belton even allowed her to teach a few classes to the younger grades. She'd given Stella a worn calculus textbook from her own Spelman days, and for weeks, Stella lay in bed trying to decipher the odd shapes and long strings of numbers nestled in parentheses. Once, Desiree flipped through the book, but the equations spanned like an ancient language and Stella snatched the book back, as if by looking at it, Desiree had sullied it somehow.
Stella wanted to become a schoolteacher at Mallard High someday. But every time Desiree imagined her own future in Mallard, life carrying on forever as it always had, she felt something clawing at her throat. When she mentioned leaving, Stella never wanted to talk about it.
"We can't leave Mama,” she always said, and chastened, Desiree fell silent. She's already lost so much, was the part that never needed to be said.
Excerpted from THE VANISHING HALF By Brit Bennett, 352pp. Riverhead Books. $27. Copyright 2020 © by Brit Bennett, Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
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