A Captivating Story of Identity

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Cover of the book The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett featuring two facial profiles lying side by side, one black and one white, Image is to accompany book review on the same page.

The Vanishing Half is the story of identical twins, who grow up in the small, southern, black community of Mallard until they run away together at age 16, seeking a better life.

Mallard isn’t a typical black community. It is idealistic in that it values lightness of skin. Hence how many years after leaving the town, one twin has returned with her black daughter, while across the country, the other twin secretly passes for white, living a privileged life with her white husband and blonde-haired daughter who know nothing of her past. 

Once inseparable twins who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds: one black and one white.

For over two decades, the twins live separate lives, without ever seeing or having contact with each other. That is until fate intervenes and the lives of their daughters’ intersect – revealing confronting admissions and revelations from them both. 

The story is told over several decades, from the 60s through to the late 80s, from Mallard to New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York. It is a wonderfully engaging story and a very unique approach to the topics of race, segregation and prejudice. 

But surprisingly, so much deeper than the story itself, is the underlying concept of identity. The story is told through each twin, as well as their daughters, introducing several multi-layered perspectives of identity with respect to race, gender, privilege and class.

Through her subtle and intelligent writing, Bennett prompts the reader to consider why a person would seek an identity so opposingly different to the one into which they were born. Such self-determinacy does not come without challenge and sacrifice, but the possibility lies in opportunity, freedom, self-expression, privilege and the potential to live a happy and fulfilling life without fear or prejudice. 

‘She hadn’t realised how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.’

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (page 169)

With so much to unpack in this novel, The Vanishing Half would make a fascinating book club discussion and is one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. This one won’t be vanishing from the shelves anytime soon.

Published 2020 by Dialogue Books, 343 pages.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Cover of the book Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid featuring multiple images of the same picture of a girl talking to a security guard with a small child at their feet. Image is to accompany book review on the same page.

Much of the hype surrounding this book is based on the premise of a racially charged incident that happens late one night at a supermarket when an African-American girl called Emira is falsely accused of kidnapping the young, white child she babysits. According to the inside cover of the book, this incident ‘sets off an explosive chain of events.’

Personally, I found ‘Such a Fun Age’ less explosive and more sizzle, with the whole incident at the supermarket wrapped up by page seventeen and only loosely connected to the other events that unfold throughout the story. Emira herself is so embarrassed, she rejects the offer of another shopper’s video footage of the altercation, insisting she would rather just forget that the incident ever took place.

Emira is the most likeable character in the book. She is a 25 year old, university graduate whose current working life consists of three days a week babysitting Briar and two afternoons a week transcribing text for the Green Party at their Philadelphia office. As is typical of young people her age, she is preoccupied with going out with her friends, meeting boys and worrying over her finances and career (or lack thereof). Not to mention the impending problem that she’ll no longer be included on her parents’ health insurance once she turns 26.

The novel is written from the two alternating perspectives of Emira and her boss, Alix, a white, 33 year old mother of two (toddler Briar and baby Catherine) and a successful social influencer. Alix is insecure and narcissistic. Following the incident at the supermarket, her efforts to get to know her black babysitter better are self-serving, obsessive and cringe-worthy.

As the story unfolds, Emira starts dating a white guy named Kelley Copeland. Kelley is kind and sincere in his affection of Emira, however he noticeably surrounds himself with black people and has a history of only dating black women.

I thought the character of Emira cleverly represented holding up a mirror to white people’s interactions with black people today. By doing so, ‘Such a Fun Age’ adeptly highlights racism, privilege, class, fetishizing and the embarrassing trend of white people trying to demonstrate just how progressive and woke they are. 

This book may not have launched on the trajectory that I thought it would from the incident at the supermarket, however it is a fresh, interesting take on prejudice, class and privilege in America today. ‘Such a Fun Age’ is an entertaining read with stories within the story on topics such as friendship, love and motherhood. I particularly loved the relationship between Emira and little Briar. 

The last chapter is told through the perspective of Emira, who discovers the type of contentment one feels when we shake off the expectations of who we should be and just be ourselves. The story wraps up, not necessarily in a nice, neat bow, but perhaps just as it should.  And not without one final stinging nod to privilege and class.

Published 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group, 320 pages.

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