‘Ihope the book gives you a sense of joy, something to immerse yourself in that is not the horrific news that we’ve been experiencing constantly and relentlessly since March,’ Brit Bennett said of her new novel. The Vanishing Half came out a week after George Floyd was choked to death on a Minneapolis sidewalk; the novel itself begins weeks after Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968, and concerns twin girls who saw their own father lynched. ‘I wanted to write a book that was not just about Black pain,’ Bennett continued, ‘but also about Black love.’ Her novel, which has been at the top of the New York Times bestseller list since it came out, six weeks ago as I write, isn’t straightforwardly escapist, but reading it during lockdown in my childhood garden, stomach against the warm grass and heels crossed in the air, I turned page after page until they seemed to turn themselves.
The story begins with a return. Desiree Vignes and her twin sister, Stella, left their hometown of Mallard, Louisiana – a fictional town so small that it will disappear from the map in the course of the story – when they were 16. Now a 30-year-old Desiree walks back into town, with a filmy blue scarf wound around the bruises on her neck, a suitcase in one hand and a daughter asking if they’re there yet in the other. She’s spotted first by the owner of Mallard’s diner, who bursts back into his restaurant with a ring of sweat around his neck, causing breakfasters at the counter to look up from their grits and eggs. The Vignes twins are remembered, if at all, as ‘selfish girls running from responsibility’, who, after leaving home, left each other too, ‘their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.’
Desiree’s return is only half of a return, and the story, like a Shakespearean Romance, or a weepie, is headed towards bringing both girls back home, as well as recalling the reasons they wanted to leave in the first place. The owner of the diner is less astonished by Desiree’s sudden reappearance than by her daughter, Jude. ‘Blueblack,’ he says, ‘like she flown direct from Africa.’ It’s the first piece of reported speech in this calmly narrated third-person novel: we are immediately being presented with what other people think they know about a person. Bennett’s first novel, The Mothers (2016), an unpicking of the consequences of a teenage abortion, opened each chapter with a chorus of mothers speaking with both the wisdom of the ages and the cramped reasoning of a small religious town. Bennett likes to take a stark piece of hearsay and turn it around, flesh it out, make it human. In The Mothers, she shows the boy who won’t take his girlfriend home to his parents, who finds $500 for her abortion and doesn’t turn up at the clinic afterwards, lighting a candle for his lost child years later. It is comforting to be in search of the person behind the story passed around, and comforting, too, to be smoothly drawn along by an all-seeing, compassionate narrator, as if gliding through still water.
The owner of the diner is surprised by Desiree’s ‘blueblack’ daughter because he is a true Mallardian, and it is held there that children ought to lighten through the generations, ‘like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream’. Desiree describes the place and its people (once she’s left) as ‘colourstruck’. The Vignes twins, with their ‘creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair’, grow up impatient with these ideals even as they embody them. They go to see Roman Holiday – a princess escapes her trammelled life for a day to ride pillion and eat gelato with a newspaper reporter – and long for more. Desiree wants to be an actress and Stella wants to be a schoolteacher. Both of them end up leaving high school before graduation, when their mother finds them a cleaning job. ‘What pretty girls. So light, aren’t they?’ their new employer remarks to her husband, as the twins climb a ladder to dust a chandelier.
Stella and Desiree leave Mallard while the rest of the town are at the Founder’s Day dance, and head for New Orleans. There they work at a laundry, but at least they can go out and dance at night, at least they aren’t in Mallard. Desiree persuades Stella to answer an ad for a secretarial job at the Maison Blanche department store. ‘An office like that would never hire a coloured girl, but they needed the money, living in the city and all, and why should the twins starve because Stella, perfectly capable of typing, became unfit as soon as anyone learned she was coloured?’ She gets the job, and then one day Desiree wakes to find all of Stella’s things gone, and a note: ‘Sorry, honey, but I’ve got to go my own way.’ Desiree moves to Washington DC to take a job in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, learning to match fingerprints by eye, and there she falls in love with Sam, an attorney. She is at first shocked by ‘the jet-black brother’ who ‘found the nerve’ to wear a lavender tie at the office, and then seduced by the luxury and calm of his bachelor flat, the tickets to Ella Fitzgerald gigs, the smooth linen of the date-night restaurants. She cries on her wedding day, never having imagined her family wouldn’t be there, and is relieved that her daughter doesn’t look like her lost sister, so she won’t have to love someone who is a reminder. Returned home in 1968, sitting across the kitchen table from her mother, Desiree lets milk be poured onto her cornbread. ‘I ain’t stupid,’ her mother says, mashing the softened cornbread with a fork. ‘You think I don’t know you runnin from that man of yours?’ Desiree left her mother behind more than a decade ago, but she’s still here, still a Mallardian, still making cornbread, still mashing it up for her little girl. ‘He gone now. Eat your cornbread.’
My first reading of The Vanishing Half was greedy, fast, for plot, with the sun on my back and murder in the news. On my second, I noticed different things. Bennett’s sentences don’t get in your way, and at first you don’t see that there are a few too many folksy bromides. Commenting on Desiree’s work recognising fingerprints, the narrator says: ‘Sometimes who you were came down to the small things.’ Closing in on the bounty hunter Desiree’s husband has hired to track her down, the narrator sidles up to his thoughts and hears him say: ‘A hurt bird always returns to its nest, a hurting woman no different.’ I guess the fact that there is a bounty hunter in this book is telling enough, even if he didn’t whip off Desiree’s blue scarf to reveal her bruises, and then fall in love with her himself. But a second reading brought other things too. Mallard, this imaginary place with its own racial rules, recalled Eatonville, the all-black town in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Eatonville is a real place, and Hurston grew up there; Mallard, though fictional, is inspired by a place Bennett’s mother once heard about in the Jim Crow South.) In Hurston’s novel, Janie Crawford leaves 1920s Eatonville behind when she finds love where the people around her think she oughtn’t, and then returns there when that love fails, and manages to live in the town as a free woman. And between my first and second reading of The Vanishing Half, I read Nella Larsen’s Passing, published in 1929, which takes two childhood friends, one who passes permanently for white and one who sometimes lets people think what they want to about her race, and pulls them into conflict. In the novella, the woman who passes, Clare Kendry, is beautiful, gorgeously dressed and reckless: she’ll introduce her racist husband to her black friends; she’ll turn up unannounced and if no one’s home, hang out with the servants; she’ll seduce her friend’s husband, as if there could be no consequences to upsetting the person who knows the secret that would bring down your carefully constructed life. It’s as if, in defying one set of society’s rules, none has weight any more for Clare. Bennett has more sympathy than Larsen for women who pass: isn’t Stella an advance guard, fooling a racist-capitalist society into behaving better? And then Stella falls in love – like Janie, like Clare, like Desiree, like all of us – which often involves passing, if you can call it that, from the family into which we were born to one we hope to shape in our own image.
Clare uses her assumed whiteness to marry a man who thinks it’s funny to call her ‘Nig’: ‘Well, you see, it’s like this,’ he tells her long-lost friend over tea at a fancy hotel in New York. ‘When we were first married, she was white as – as – well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s getting darker and darker. I tell her if she don’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.’ What use is passing if you end up in a marriage like that? Larsen can’t imagine a happy ending for her story – and in Bennett’s book, a happy ending won’t be forthcoming from the gossips of Mallard, or from Desiree’s generation. In Passing, Clare’s daughter must at all costs be protected from the truth; the plot of The Vanishing Half can only be resolved by Jude, the ‘blueblack’ daughter who leaves Mallard too, though not under the cover of night, for a degree at UCLA on a sports scholarship. Outside the ever lighter mindset of her small town in Louisiana, Jude flourishes. At a Halloween party in her freshman year she meets Reese, who has also left an identity behind. Back in Arkansas, he was Therese Anne Carter, but in late-1970s California he takes photos, goes to the gym, takes illegal hormones, grows his blond stubble. Jude falls in love with him imperceptibly, recognising her feelings not long after walking in on him changing and glimpsing the bruises beneath his wrapped chest. Jude simply sees a person she loves in pain, a person who she’s not sure likes her as much as she likes him because he’s never tried to kiss her.
In the same 1968 MLK April, Stella is married and living with her blonde-haired daughter, Kennedy, in the Brentwood suburb of LA. (She has made a better marriage than Clare: her husband ‘respected the natural order of things but you didn’t have to be cruel about it. As a boy, he’d had a coloured nanny named Wilma who was practically family. He still sent her a Christmas card each year.’) She is at an emergency homeowners’ association meeting – held because a black family have bought the house opposite hers – and astonishes the neighbourhood by getting to her feet: ‘You must stop them … If you don’t, there’ll be more and then what? Enough is enough!’ She is met with applause, and can’t get out of the room for people who want to shake her hand. In A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s play from 1959, a white representative of a homeowners’ association in Chicago pays a visit to the Younger family the night before they are due to move out of the South Side apartment they share with rats and into a house of their own with a garden. The representative offers them their money back and more if they decide not to move. In Bennett’s novel, the black family does move in (we never find out whether the Youngers make it out of the South Side because the curtain falls), because the Walkers are cash buyers and they threaten to sue the association. Reginald Walker is a TV star, famous for playing a cop who’s a stickler for protocol. ‘Would they see her for what she was?’ Stella wonders, ‘or, rather, what she wasn’t?’
There is a third reading of a novel when you’re writing about it, one that necessarily takes you further away from the sunny weekend lying on the grass. In setting down the plot twists, parallels, shocks and returns of The Vanishing Half, I’ve sometimes felt that it might as well be a soap opera, a potboiler, a TV series (as it soon will be – HBO bought rights for a seven-figure fee at the end of June). Bennett’s novel isn’t quintessentially a novel, but I’m not so far away from that first reading to think that it needs to be something other than what it is. The Vanishing Half has sold thousands of copies across the world this summer, and if thousands of people can forget the deadly virus, political mismanagement, racial violence, domestic violence, economic uncertainty and ecological disaster (as well as the washing-up, their overgrown fringe and their neighbours’ suspiciously un-distanced-sounding party), while reading a book that touches on all these things, resolves happily but not stupidly, and reintroduces them to Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry – well, that’s good enough.