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.

Over 10 million Copies Sold!

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Image of the cover of the book Where the Crawdads sing by Delia Owens featuring a girl in a canoe paddling out to sea with a pink sky in the distance. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

I admit, the swamps and marshland of North Carolina aren’t my usual go-to setting for a novel. But in Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens paints such a beautiful picture of this region and demonstrates such care and knowledge of nature beyond aesthetics, that you can’t help being swept away in the peace, light and beauty of coastal Carolina.

As a young girl, Kya is abandoned by everyone in her family. Alone in the family shack on the marshlands of North Carolina with only the seagulls for company, Kya must learn to survive on her own.

But Kya is resourceful and resilient and has talents she doesn’t know exist. Throughout the story, she forms connections with a handful of people from the town. Some of these people become firm friends and an anchor for Kya as she navigates life alone in her marshland home. Others arrive, only to leave her hurt and adrift, with renewed feelings of distrust and abandonment.

As well as weaving a careful story of Kya’s journey through her teen and young adult years, there is also the unraveling story of the town’s star quarterback, Chase Andrews, who has been found dead in the marsh. Soon, Kya, the ‘Marsh Girl’, is the prime suspect and facing a future in prison, far away from the safety and comfort of her beloved marsh.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the debut novel by Delia Owens, a 70 year old, retired wildlife biologist. Prior to penning her first novel, a New York Times article describes Owens as ‘a reclusive, 70-year-old scientist, whose previous published works chronicled the decades she spent in the deserts and valleys of Botswana and Zambia’. 

Perhaps understandably then, the publisher originally only published 28,000 copies of the book. Two years later, Where the Crawdads Sing has sold 8 million copies worldwide. It has topped the New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2019 and 2020 for a combined 100 non-consecutive weeks. 

I love that this same New York Times article quotes Owens as saying “I have never connected with people the way I have with my readers…….I wasn’t expecting that.” Seems as though there might more than a little of the author reflected in spirited, nature-loving, loner, Kya. 

Published 2019 by Hachette Australia, 384 pages.

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