The Vanishing Half gets into big questions about our identities

Identical twins have long provided fertile subject matter for a good story. From The Man in the Iron Mask to Sweet Valley High (oh yes - my reading tastes are nothing if not eclectic) the dramatic possibilities of two people who look exactly alike are endless.

Thursday, 7th October 2021, 6:00 am
Anna Caig

But what if, despite looking exactly alike, one twin is Black and one twin passes as white?

This is the premise of The Vanishing Half, the 2020 bestseller from Brit Bennett.

We begin in the 1950s in the Deep South of America, in an exclusively Black town that doesn’t appear on any map and prides itself on being light-skinned and getting lighter all the time.

Twins Stella and Desiree Vignes decide they must escape when their mother insists they leave school at 16 to work as cleaners.

They have always been inseparable, and when they move to New Orleans together, finding their way in the big city, at first it seems they’ll remain so.

But as the girls become women, Stella begins to ‘pass’ as white and their paths diverge so extremely the contrast becomes extraordinary.

Desiree marries a man with dark skin and ends up moving back to their home town, while Stella marries a white man and lives in a very white neighbourhood.

We make our way through the decades and meet Stella and Desiree’s daughters, spending large portions of the book with them exploring the impact the divergence has through the generations.

There are some big old coincidences as we move through the plot – but these don’t jar or seem forced.

If anything, the book feels allegorical.

We get into such big questions about identity and to what extent you’re tied to the one you’re born with, Stella and Desiree become symbols of something greater than their own lives.

That’s not to say we lose them as individuals.

They remain well-drawn and distinct characters – their inner worlds, and their agony over losing each other, depicted with sometimes heartbreaking clarity.

All in all it’s a remarkable achievement.

Bennett has done something new, exciting and deeply thought-provoking with the identical twin motif.