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.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Image is the cover of the book Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Image features a girl swimming face down in the water. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

After reading Ng’s second book, Little Fires Everywhere, and being gripped by the Netflix series of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon, I was keen to discover more from this New York Times bestselling author. 

The title of Ng’s first book, Everything I Never Told You, grabbed my attention and had me intrigued right from the start. My curiosity only grew upon reading the first line of the very first chapter:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

Who is Lydia? 

Why is she dead? 

Who doesn’t know?

So many questions! And all of these questions fuel a constant sense of wariness and dread which hang in the mind of the reader as the story of the Lee family unfolds over the decades to the current day when their eldest daughter’s body is discovered in the local lake. 

Set in small town Ohio in the late 70s, Lydia is the favourite child of blonde-haired, American born Marilyn, and her Chinese-American husband, James. Their other children are the older and much loved brother to Lydia, Nathan, and the youngest and often forgotten child, Hannah. 

As in her second book, Little Fires Everywhere, Ng explores the complex and delicate relationships that exist in families, with an undercurrent of race relations and an exploration of minority groups. Everything I Never Told You gives readers an insight into how we as parents, whether deliberately or unknowingly, pass on our own personal fears and shortfalls to our children, and the inevitable fallout and damage that can result, despite our best intentions.

Everything I Never Told You is not a new release. It was first published in 2014, winning Amazon.com’s Best Book of 2014. At 292 pages, it’s a great weekend or holiday read. If you’re feeling particularly busy and time poor, it is equally one that can be picked up and put down intermittently, and will capture your attention at each sitting. Either way, Everything I Never Told You is an intriguing read. Understanding this family from the different perspectives of each character will inevitably prompt the reader to confront their own familial expectations and family dynamics. 

Published 2014 by Hachette Australia, 320 pages.

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