by Deborah Rogers –
We started our reading year off strong with a beautifully written tale about family secrets and personal identity. In The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett takes us into the lives of twins, Stella and Desiree. They grow up in the American South, in a town that’s been built for fair-skinned black people. Race, or especially colour, is one of the central themes of the book and we see it explored through many different eyes. At 14, Stella and Desiree leave home suddenly, in the middle of the night, escaping the stifling rules and uninspired future they see for themselves in their small town. The real drama of the book starts though when Desiree returns home 14 years later with a very dark-skinned child but no Stella.
Our readers loved the immediacy of the writing in this novel. As the narrative switched from character to character you could almost feel yourself in the room with them. The sense of place is very strong, and Bennett is skilled to quickly locate us with her characters as they move across the country. We follow both Desiree and Stella’s storylines showing two lives, that started identically, veering off in completely different directions. The storyteller seems to pose the question: what life would you choose if you weren’t constrained by your upbringing?
The theme of identity is explored not just through the lens of colour and race in the United States, though there is plenty to delve into in that topic, but we also meet characters who are exploring their gender identity. They are also questioning their places in the social hierarchy, but none of this makes it a book that feels like you are being forced to unpick a topic. There’s a pleasing story that flows naturally (and in chronological order which made some of our readers very happy) and provides a satisfying resolution. We appreciated that it felt like each of the characters had their own flaws, and each was presented without moral judgment. Were there too many “hot topics” squeezed into a relatively short novel? Possibly, yet the lives presented felt authentic, and issues such as race, gender and domestic violence are often intersecting in real life.
Brit Bennett is clearly an author to keep an eye on. Several of our readers mentioned that they will be looking for her previous novel, and of course for future ones!
For our next meeting we will be reading Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo. The meeting takes place on Tuesday, February 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sidney/North Saanich Library. Stay up to date with all the Book Club news by signing up to our mailing list:www.seasidemagazine.ca/book-club/.