“Their (the Vignes twins) disappearance seemed all of a sudden as the rapture, all of Mallard the sinners left behind. Naturally, the truth was neither sinister nor mystical.”
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett opens with a homecoming and a mystery. The homecoming—one of the Vignes twins returns. The twins disappeared the morning after the annual town celebration of their ancestor who founded the town. The mystery: which one? Why did she come back after being gone so long? Where was the other one? Who was that young child with the twin? The opening mystery draws the reader in, but it is the secrets that kept me listening for nearly twelve hours.
The narration by Shayna Small is superb. There are multiple characters who age within the novel—the Vignes twins, their daughters, their lovers, and their mother—and the subtle changes she incorporates convey maturity. I also appreciate the speech patterns and emotions that she gives each character. As a listener, I could feel the sadness, joy, fear, concern, and curiosity come through loud and clear. I think this is what I like most about audiobooks. I like listening to a skilled narrator who assigns not only a voice, but a set of emotions and full life to each character.
The novel begins in the small southern town of Mallard in 1968. The town is a refuge and a nearly gated community. As a refuge, it was a safe place for light-skinned Black people. A place to flourish. However, for the Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, the town felt like a prison. As descendants of the town's founder, there were expectations about how their lives would unfold. They longed for more. Yet, this is not just a story of young women in search of an adventure or a romanticized coming-of-age story. This story follows the two girls from a young age growing up in Mallard, their disappearance from Mallard, marriage, and through middle age as mothers of daughters.
As girls, they were both light-skinned Black children with long fair hair. As young adults, after leaving Mallard, one chooses to live her life as a white woman and the other returns home, living life as a Black woman. If you are not familiar with the concept of “passing,” this novel is a master’s degree course in colorism among African Americans. It is a deep dive into internalized racial oppression. It is a front-row seat to the complexities of family, the lies we tell ourselves, and the secrets we keep in order to maintain the lies we tell. The novel is also about loss. The losses we choose and the price we pay for that choice. The losses that are a result of people taken away from us or the people who have cast us away. The novel is ultimately about identity, resilience, and choices. If you are looking for a novel that is sugar and spice and everything nice, this is not for you. If you are curious about the social construction of race, then you will want to read or listen to this book.
The audio version is nearly 12 hours long, yet I thought the novel ended too soon. I wanted to know, “What happens next?” The Vanishing Half was No.1 on the New York Times bestsellers list. After listening, I am not surprised that it was a bestseller. It is worth reading, and it is worth a listen. 11 Hours 34 minutes. (Audible, Penguin Audio)
(Editor’s Note: Content warning: Book includes rough language and sexual scenes.)