In this powerful, many-layered novel, Bennett explores the role of identity in six connected lives, considering race and gender as her characters wrestle with truth. Some are looking for the truth about someone else and some are actively hiding their gender or racial origins. This is a novel of ideas, which is a surprising thing to say about a novel that is as deeply and fully absorbing as this one. Yet everything springs from concept, beginning with the African American town of Mallard, Louisiana, a place where all its inhabitants have such pale skin that in 1938, when a young priest arrived from Dublin, he thought he was lost. This couldn't be the "colored town" he had been assigned. In this place, everyone was "fair and blonde and redheaded. Was this who counted for colored in America, who whites wanted to keep separate? Well, how would they ever tell the difference" (6)?
The first central characters we meet are Stella and Desiree, identical twins who grew up in the racially homogeneous town of Mallard. Desiree chooses to remain true to her black identity, marrying a man whose skin is dark and birthing a daughter who has her father's color. Her sister Stella wants a secretarial job, and the only way she can get one is to pass for white. The role seems to come to her naturally, so she chooses to play it in all aspects of her life even though it will mean she must leave Desiree, her mother, and the town of Mallard behind forever. She marries her boss, moves to LA, and births a blond-haired daughter.
It is when Kennedy, her daughter, is growing up that the complexities emerge. Kennedy feels her mother's tension whenever she asks about her childhood and notices she never gets full or satisfying answers. Who is her mother, she wonders. It's not surprising later, that Kennedy drifts into acting and finds she has a talent for it, taking after a mother whose entire adult life is a performance.
Jude is Desiree's daughter, and when she and her mother return to Mallard, the dark skin she inherited from her father keeps her socially isolated. But she thrives academically and moves to California for college where she gets a job working for a caterer. It is at one of those catering events that she spots her mother's missing twin and is so shocked she drops a bottle of wine on the floor. It is a powerful moment, but Bennett keeps it in check because this is the tightened spring from which the rest of the novel will unwind. Jude learns Stella's name and then pursues Kennedy, keeping the knowledge that they are cousins to herself.
The tension grows steadily, always building the reader's desire to know more, as the omniscient perspective cuts a scene at a high moment, moving its focus from character to character, widening the circle to include Jude's transexual boyfriend Reese, and Early, Desiree's lover, a gifted private investigator famous for finding the whereabouts of even the most cleverly disguised criminal. Yet in all the years of their relationship Early never succeeds in finding Stella.
Place is of minimal concern to this author even though the setting moves from Mallard to New Orleans to Los Angeles to New York City. Instead, Bennett narrows her attention on another narrative quality altogether: theme. The theme of hide and seek is everywhere, finding different forms and iterations, and my greatest pleasure in reading this novel was discovering each new expression. Perhaps Stella's secret is what motivated Kennedy to become a professional actor, yet, when acting ceased to fulfill her, what led her to real estate? Was it, again, an awareness that her mother was not the person she seemed to be? Here she is at an open house:
"She would disappear inside herself, inside these empty homes where nobody actually lived. As the room filled with strangers, she always found her mark, guiding a couple through the kitchen, pointing out the light fixtures, back splash, high ceilings.
'Imagine your life here,' she said. 'Imagine who you could be'" (300).
In the same oblique way, the other cousin takes on her mother's preoccupation. She goes into medicine, a field devoted to revealing what's hidden. Here is Jude dissecting a cadaver:
"People lived in bodies that were largely unknowable. Some things you could never learn about yourself—some things nobody could learn about you until after you died" (328).
Echoes, patterns, reverberations. This is how the theme plays out. The original stone thrown into the water--Stella's decision to live the life of a white woman--sets in motion the ripples that constantly move outwards in this riveting story where nothing is static, nothing comes to a resting place.
I do believe that children have an inchoate awareness of the secrets their parents keep. In my own family, my mother was happy to bury her New York Jewish identity when she married my German Texan father, and over the years I've met other people with similar stories. The children always know.
Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. New York: Riverhead, 2020.