As I closed this book, just having read the final words of the last paragraph, I was struck by the sheer range of this text. In many ways, The Vanishing Half feels like a book I have been yearning for and a book I did not know that I needed, and every book I read hereafter is going to need to step up its game.
The Vanishing Half is a series of narratives woven together that spans decades and snakes across the country, starting in the fictional town of Mallard, Louisiana, a place so small it never appears on any map, to New Orleans; characters find themselves in Boston, D.C., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York — I could go on, but I am trying to avoid spoilers here.
Centered are the splintered lives of twins Desiree and Stella, who are often described as either one person split into two or two people poured into one. They are inseparable — until one of them makes a choice the other finds unthinkable and ‘crosses over.’ Stella leaves Desiree behind without a single warning sign to live her life as a white woman. In time Desiree marries a dark-skinned Black man, and at the beginning of the novel we see her returning to their town so small it does not exist, her young daughter in tow. That her daughter is dark matters a great deal because Mallard was founded under the premise of being a town that values lightness to its core.
The narrative shifts gears later in the book as we start to read from the perspectives of Jude, Desiree’s daughter, and Kennedy’s daughter. The intergenerational nature of the pain caused by Stella’s leaving and the racial status and relative wealth of each cousin and each parent comes fully into play.
The Vanishing Half is a book that I appreciate for a number of reasons, but one that stands out is the way that it demonstrates the raw emotions of a person, and how messy and complex we can be. The small graces we give each other, and the damage love can do — how much you can hurt someone with what was supposed to be a kindness — is emphasized throughout these pages. At the same time, the cruelest and deadliest weapon throughout the book is truth.
I really started to love this novel when the story began depicting explicitly queer narratives within the text. There are multiple characters who flout the gender binary, and their presence matters, having a tangible effect, and is integrated into the narrative. One of the most prominent secondary characters — who I would call a main character except that there are no scenes from solely his perspective — is trans, and while Reese’s portrayal isn’t my experience and there are a few things I felt off putting, I could understand the choices made from the context of his personality, background, and environment. His experience and those of the other more minor queer characters are well-integrated subplots and their removal and/or the removal of their trans and/or queer identities would not only be erasure but also in Reese’s case remove a rich, dynamic, loving, and beloved (by me anyway) character from the book, but also break the plot in several crucial places.
I could go on about the ways I loved this book forever. A few rapid-fire:
- Desiree’s conflict about leaving her abusive husband made my heart lurch. It falls in line with a lot of what I have discovered about how hard it is to leave abusive relationships
- There is a helluva lot of internalized and/or verbalized racism in this book. Whew chile, I know this was set primarily in the 60s-80s but DAMN. Prepare yourself.
- In addition to the domestic abuse CW and the general racism CW (there is a full list of CW at the bottom of this review.) there is a really graphic stomach-churning lynching scene that the twins witness at a young age that had me put the book down for a few moments just because I needed to take a break to get a clear head.
- I love Loretta so much and I wish she and Desiree could have been friends. (Sorry that does not make sense if you have not read this, it is just something I needed to say.)
- Kennedy and June’s relationship is just *chef’s kiss* I love to see it.
There really is so much more I can say but I am going to stop at GO BUY THIS BOOK! Support Black authors fam.
CW: Domestic Abuse, Racial Slurs, Lynching, Body Dysphoria