Review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

9780349701455Mallard, Lousiana is a town so small it can’t be found on a map. It’s a town of light-skinned black people — a town where “nobody married dark” — and its inhabitants are raised to make future generations lighter still. But its citizens are still susceptible to unjustifiable and endemic racism of the time; and of today. They work menial jobs for white people; and they’re the target of extreme prejudice and violent hate crimes. Take the father of the Vignes twins; lynched once in his front yard, then again in the hospital. Which is just one of the factors that leads to their abandonment of Mallard in 1954, when 16-year-old Desiree and Stella Vignes abscond to New Orleans.

United until this point, here their story fractures. Desiree marries “the darkest man she could find” and eventually returns to Mallard with her 8-year-old daughter, determined to hide from her abusive spouse. Stella, meanwhile, camouflages herself in white society, hugging her ability to pass for white like a blanket, because it offers opportunity and security; things Stella has never been able to take for granted. Mallard — its oppressiveness, and the family she left behind — becomes a memory. The more time passes, the easier it is to cut those emotional tendrils tying her to that town. Until years later Desiree’s daughter Jude — tending bar as a side job in Beverley Hills — catches a glimpse of Stella.

“The Vanishing Half” is no rehash of the traditional ‘estranged sibling reunion’ narrative. Brit Bennett is incapable of writing something so simplistic. This is a novel about identity: how civilisation has constructed, cemented and propagated our understanding of race and gender over thousands of years, and how difficult it is to break away from society’s imposed categorisation of every faction of humankind. But there’s not a lick of ostentatiousness here. Bennett’s agenda — the novel’s themes — are masqueraded behind rich, graceful prose and characters portrayed so honestly you can almost see into their souls. It works on a macro level because the smaller stories within are so vivid. There is not one false note in this extraordinary novel.

ISBN: 9780349701455
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Dialogue Books
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 2-Jun-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Mothers by Brit Bennett

9780735216754.jpgThe Mothers is an outstanding debut novel: an engaging, poignant, and thought-provoking read about the importance of motherhood, and the hardships faced by girls who don’t have a female figure in their lives to help guide them. Bennett’s novel explores friendship, the impact of secrets, and the consequences of disloyalty, as three teenagers grow into young adults. Most importantly, it bestows insight into the lives of middle-class people of colour; a viewpoint I’ve rarely seen explored in all my years reading fiction, which is possibly my own fault — I don’t go looking for such stories, when I really should — but equally, such stories don’t seem to be published, which says a lot about the state of the industry, sure, but also about readers’ willingness to read such tales. As author Angela Flournoy put it in a New York Times article: “Writing about ordinary black people is actually extraordinary. It’s absolutely its own form of advocacy.” That’s the point, I think: teenagers Nadia, Luke and Aubrey could easily be characters of any race. Their coming-of-age story — their interwoven destinies — has nothing to do with their race.

Few novels are as poetically searing as Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. Few books are able to say so much with so little. These three teens are united by the hardships they’ve already been exposed to: Nadia’s mother committed suicide, leaving no note, no explanation; Luke’s promising football career was ended by a freak injury; and Aubrey was forced away from home because of her abusive stepfather. When Nadia learns she’s carrying Luke’s baby, she decides not to keep it; Luke reluctantly scrounges the money for the abortion. It becomes their secret, which endures, leakily, for decades; it brings them together and tears them apart, time and time again, trailing them into adulthood. Even though I sensed where the story was headed, and the heartbreak that awaited, I couldn’t put the book down. I was crushed, repeatedly, by the ill-fated decisions made by the trio; but I continued reading, hoping for the best.

The eponymous “mothers” of the Upper Room church community serve as the novel’s narrator — their introspection frames Bennett’s novel — but if I’m honest, the conceit feels a little forced and unnecessary. There’s no need for the meta narrative, and it can be a tad intrusive at times; but in no way does it detract from the brilliance of Bennett’s debut.

Truly one of my favourite books of the year.

ISBN: 9780735215405
Format: Paperback (229mm x 152mm x mm)
Pages: 288
Imprint: Prentice Hall Press
Publisher: Prentice Hall Press
Publish Date: 13-Oct-2016
Country of Publication: United States