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Black History Month: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett explores racism and society prejudices

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Shortlisted for the Women's Prize for fiction 2021, The Vanishing Half tells the story of the Vignes twins who try to escape their southern black community.

Twins Desiree and Stella Vignes are born and raised in Mallard, Louisiana, a fictional town habituated by fair skinned African Americans, who neither accept that they are Negroes nor fit into the white American dream.

Aged 16 the sisters escape their home town, determined to make it in the big wide world. Their paths abruptly separate when Stella does a disappearing act and Desiree is left to cope on her own.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Fast forward 10 years and Desiree returns to her home town with her daughter Jude in tow, to escape an abusive husband.

Stella meanwhile is living like a ‘white person’. She has married well – her white husband knows nothing of her past – and lives in a privileged area of Los Angeles. When a black family move into her neighbourhood she is as aghast as her neighbours, but inevitably finds herself drawn to them because she is an outsider at heart herself and is in turn horrified at her own ‘racist’ reactions to them.

And the central theme of the book – the struggle of covering up identity – is continued with the next generation. Both Stella’s daughter Kennedy and Desiree’s daughter Jude, are constantly striving to be comfortable with who they are and in Kennedy’s case in particular understand why her mother is the way she is.

Jude’s boyfriend Reese has his own secrets and Desiree’s partner Early is as dark as she is light, but despite his flighty existence is one of the most reliable characters and Desiree’s rock.

Bennett’s writing is fierce and unforgiving in its portrayal of the conflict which defines Stella’s existence and the book explores racism and acceptance of who we are through multiple generations of women. It spans the decades from the 1950s to the 1990s and takes the reader from the Deep South to California, where acceptance, or otherwise, of colour or different lifestyle choices is explored.

The book neither offers a trite solution nor sensationalise an issue that lies at the heart of all our beings – who we really are and feeling comfortable in our own skins.

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