by Elizabeth Spencer
“Mallard had always been more of an idea than a place” writes Brit Bennett of the town at the heart of her second novel, The Vanishing Half. The idea of Mallard, founded on sugarcane fields in South Central Louisiana, is that it can be “a third place” for Black people with light skin color “who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.” In interviews, Bennett says Mallard is based on a town her mother remembered hearing about when she was growing up in rural Louisiana.
The Vanishing Half follows three generations of characters as they journey across the country in search of new identities. I loved the strong sense of place throughout the novel. As the narrative moved from Mallard to New Orleans, and then to Washington D.C., Los Angeles, New York, and Minneapolis, I felt grounded in the specific details of time and place. For example, Mallard is “a small town in the shadow of an oil refinery” with pine trees “stretching on endlessly.”
It was described as timely on its release in June 2020, a week after the murder of George Floyd and amidst a pandemic with disproportionate impact on Black communities, but I would argue that The Vanishing Half is timeless. What’s the difference? The themes explored in the novel—journeys, family secrets, identity, choices, and love—will always be relevant.
In interviews about her bestselling novel, An American Marriage, Tayari Jones quoted a piece of writing advice that helped her: Write about people and their problems, not problems and their people. I thought of that while reading Brit Bennett’s novel because she does this beautifully. To me, the best novels are those that convey political arguments to readers without explicitly preaching.
So, while The Vanishing Half is about race and prejudice, colorism and passing, these ideas emerge naturally through the characters and their stories. Bennett’s characters come to life on the page, where even people making choices that hurt others are sympathetic. We first get Desiree’s point of view, making it easy to think that her twin sister Stella, who abandoned her family to live as a white woman, is the heartless one. But then Stella tells her story and my heart ached for her throughout, even in her worst moments. Both twins are marked by a childhood tragedy—the lynching of their father at the hands of white men.
Beyond the trajectories of the twins, we meet their husbands and lovers, their daughters and their daughters’ boyfriends, their mother Adele, and various others who play supporting roles in the lives of the main characters. This novel is full of complexity, down to each of its characters. I can’t choose a favorite; I was rooting for all of them.
The novel is divided into six parts, each highlighting a different time period and character. The story begins in 1968 when Desiree returns to Mallard with her daughter Jude, who is described as “blueblack, like she flown direct from Africa” by the owner of Lou’s Egg House, the local diner where other key moments in the novel take place. I love the sensory specificity and sense of time in the first sentence: “The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort.”
Then we meet Early, abandoned as a child and rejected in Mallard for being “the wrong sort of boy,” i.e., dark skinned. He works as a bounty hunter and believes “the key to staying lost was to never love anything.” Later, I wondered how Stella stayed lost without succumbing to missing her family the way they miss her.
Part Two opens with this line: “In the autumn of 1978, a dark girl blew into Los Angeles from a town that existed on no maps.” That girl is Jude, Desiree’s daughter, and in her section of the novel we also meet Reese, a transgender boy who moves to L.A. from Texas to start a new life and new identity. No detail in this book seems accidental, and they all connect, so when we’re told that “on the road from El Dorado, Therese Anne Carter became Reese,” it’s interesting to think of him running away from that mythical city of gold and wealth — when all of the other characters seem, in contrast, to be searching for their own El Dorado. Of course, as we’ve learned already, places in this novel are more about ideas than about points on a map.
In Part Three we go back to 1968 and get Stella’s side of the story; in Part Four it’s on to 1982, and then on to 1985-1988 in Parts Five and Six. Bennett is a skilled storyteller, adept at weaving historical events, such as the assassination of Dr. King and the dawning AIDS crisis, into the everyday lives of her characters. As the novel ended, I didn’t want to leave the characters behind. So while I’m waiting for Bennett to come out with her next novel, I am going to read her also-buzzed-about debut novel, The Mothers.