One of the main goals I have for 2020 is to try and diversify what I read and this is not just confined to genres but also the authors I pick up. It was with this in mind that I realised that I haven’t read many fiction books by authors of colour so I started looking around for something that grabbed my interest. And as luck would have it, this book hit the shelves at about the same time so I enthusiastically dove in.
The Vanishing Half is an intergenerational story of race and a family, focussing mainly on a pair of twin sisters Stella and Desiree and their respective daughters, set in the United States and the complex relationships they have over several decades. What marks this story as something deeper is that Stella and Desiree are light skinned african americans. They are born in a town, Mallard, that was founded by their Great Great Great Grandfather, a former slave who was the son of a white man (who was his owner) and black woman, and wanted a place where others like him could live. The principle of ‘lighter the skin the better’ is deep seated in Mallard. This vision of race has lasting effects on the two girls.
Despite being twins, Stella and Desiree are vastly different in personality, ideas and outlook. Desiree longs for more than Mallard can offer so one night she persuades Stella to run away to New Orleans. From there their differences eventually make themselves known and they take two very divergent paths for the rest of their lives. Stella rejects her african american ancestry and abandons her sister to live the life of a white woman, while Desiree marries a dark skinned african american man whom she eventually leaves to return to Mallard with her daughter after he becomes violent.
They live their lives separately, one as a white woman, one as a black woman, until chance brings Desiree’s daughter Jude into contact with her aunt and cousin. This moment has profound consequences as lies are eventually uncovered and identities called into question.
This was a really interesting book to read because of the very complex depictions of race and racial attitudes portrayed. Almost all the characters place themselves or are placed by others on a racial hierarchy, white, black and something that is neither, a third the author calls it. Too white to be considered black and too black to be white. But the relationships between these groups are multi layered and many times contradictory.
Take the town of Mallard for example. It is known as a ‘coloured town’ but most of the inhabitants are very fair skinned. The towns folk talk negatively about racial inequality relating to whites and how they are treated more favourable by society, but they themselves aspire to be as ‘light’ as possible even though they don’t want to be white and very early on in the book the author says ‘no one in Mallard marries dark’. Mallard reacts to dark skinned african americans, with distaste and superiority, the very same way that whites do the the people of Mallard. When Desiree returns with her dark skinned daughter, people are amazed and she is treated as an outcast for her whole life there.
Stella and Desiree react very differently in response to this racial situation. Stella aspires to be white as she sees it as a way to live a better life, despite the fact that white men murdered her father. Desiree despises the town’s obsession with lightness and subsequently marries a dark skinned man. One gravitates away from her blankness, the other towards it. But it’s all swings and roundabouts as at one stage in the book, Stella forms a friendship with her black neighbour. Even the reasons for this are complex, to quieten the guilt of her secret and the way she expunged her family from her life perhaps?
I don’t know if I am doing the book’s commentary on race any justice as so much went on that I haven’t mentioned but this much I know – nothing regarding race in this book is cut and dried. The author talks about the many issues surrounding race through her fictional characters so skillfully that you cannot help but be drawn in and frequently find yourself thinking through all the situations that you encounter.
But it isn’t just race that is a theme. Family runs strong throughout, not just blood but found families as well. It looks at the ties that bind families together and how they can be fractured, frayed and seemingly broken but a bond remaining despite all that.
One of the surprises of the book for me was the examination of identity but not via race in the form of Stella or Desiree, but gender by way of Reese, the boyfriend of Jude, Desiree’s daughter. Reese is transsexual, born female but who identifies as male. He binds his chest and takes steroids (not always obtained legally) to be more physiologically male. I found his story to be deeply touching and very emotional. Rejected by his family, he runs away and survives a harrowing existence until he is taken in by a member of the drag community in Los Angeles and forms an adopted family of sorts and eventually enters a relationship with Jude.
Representation of all types of people is not something that is lacking in this book. It is such a breath of fresh air to read complex and in depth character depictions of people of colour and those genders other than male and female. For them not to be treated in literature as tropes or sidekicks, or shown as two dimensional without the same strengths and vulnerabilities that make us all human. But also to include their own challenges particular to their life situations. Again the author handles this with great care and honesty in a way that doesn’t shy away from the often harsh reality of life for these marginalised groups but with empathy and tenderness.
Most of the characters also display the author’s attention to emotional complexity and detail. Stella at first appears the more conservative of the sisters, organised and focussed, she is the one who is the more reluctant to leave Mallard, not wanting to abandon their mother and her budding career as a teacher behind. But once gone she turns out to be the most decisive. She makes the brutal break from her sister, she is the one to walk away not only from her family but her racial identity and she doesn’t look back. Desiree is the most unsettled by Mallard, the smallness of it not just in terms of space but also ambition and is the driving force behind leaving. But she is the one to return home, a place that she stays in for 20 years. We see the consequences of the decisions these two women make on the lives of their children and how the coming together of Jude and Kennedy (Stella’s daughter) reflects back to their mothers. And this is only scratching the surface of what the characterisations have to offer. I will say that Kennedy’s story is probably the least explored and delved into, and I felt that her characterisation was a little two dimensional. She could have been afforded a little more time and space on the page which may have made her more interesting and important in the narrative.
This book is being widely praised by critics and readers alike and with very good reason. It is an excellent book that I would strongly recommend to anyone who is looking for a beautifully written, complex tale of race, identity and family.
Rating: 4 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)