Book Review: The Vanishing Half
Soft, quiet, avoidant and thus achingly loud racial heartbreak
I know I’m just launching straight in like a cannonball right now, but the very first thing that I must say about this book is that, as much as I can say this as a cis woman, the trans visibility in this book is so important and well done. It’s extremely rare (in fact, has this ever happened before this book? ever in my life?) for me to come across a book with a trans character who is not exclusively (and flamboyantly) A Trans Person.
In this book, Reese is Reese, and Reese engages in the world and is full of depth and emotions and a reality that is far from the tokenizing caricatures of trans people in popular media. I felt like I could read Reese’s part in the story while breathing normally and with a resting heart rate. This, for me, was painfully exceptional. The tiny twinge of a pause I had is that of course he had to be absolutely handsome. Would the story work if Reese was a plain and average looking trans man?
But The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett has Reese as a supporting character, not a lead. It’s a novel about twins born in a southern town that built itself as a home for a light skinned Black population. The mental hurdles it takes to even write that sentence is the point of the book. At what point is someone Black or not? What is a socially constructed identity? When is someone lying about an identity that was made up for economic reasons by The Man in the first place? This is another novel that puts all the non-fiction race and class books I love to read into practice by putting both race, class, and history (it takes place from the 40s through the 90s) into a story. I read this book thinking about the one drop rule and the paper bag test, thinking about racial ambiguity and the cringey (not a word) question What are you? I was thinking about all the ways the great “we” of society attaches identities and labels to individuals. We must label. We must create boxes and put each individual into those we determine are the best fit. We must understand what you are.
I am a white, middle-class, not that ‘young’ young professional woman in a heterosexual co-habitating relationship with a Black man — and those are things that feel very salient to me, especially while reading.
While we don’t have any, ya know, plans for a biological baby any time soon, it’s something I think about quite a bit on a conceptual level. What does it mean to make a conscious choice to have a bi-racial child? What does it mean that I think so much about the conscious choice to have a bi-racial child? What is it to imagine growing a baby in my body and raising it, having them look at him, look at me, look at the larger society, and try to define for themselves what box they belong in?
Right, I know, we don’t theoretically want anyone in a box, but who doesn’t bend themselves backwards and fold impossibly to fit into our own? Good sister, good parent, excellent student, outstanding employee — and those cross into gender, race, sexual orientation based boxes as well.
This book has me lost in questions and thoughts about identity, which is not limited to being bi-racial or any certain thing. Whenever I get stuck in something like that, I think of my partner’s response to me when I brought it up to him: well, if we had a white kid or a Black kid, we would still raise them as that race. Which makes me realize that considering having a bi-racial child is just an extension of me doing that racist thing were my internal socialization equates white to neutral. If I had a white baby with a white man, racism would be less of an issue, right? lololol at that racist part of myself even considering that. My partner is right — no matter what I believe in raising children to see, celebrate, understand, question and above all talk about race. No matter what race of child I might birth, I want that child to examine and confront and fuck up these systems.
This is the kind of book I had open in front of me as I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The kind of book that actually had me sitting at a table for meals, which is something in and of itself. I stayed up late to read it, and woke up early to click on the living room light and nestle with it. I’m sad for it to be finished.
I loved the writing, loved the dialogue, and loved how starkly different they were. As someone who has lived both north, south, and coastal, I also appreciated the headnods to cultures all over the country. It’s written from different decades and different perspectives, keeping you a bit on your toes.
I will say that I am a restless and impatient person in general, all of the time. As such, more than once, I found myself skipping a few pages to start the next chapter. This is weird, right? I would read 20 pages, skip five, read the next five, then go back and read what I had skipped. While in the moment I didn’t really think about why I was doing it, I now think it’s because certain parts dragged a bit more than others and had me less engaged. I didn’t want to miss any of the story, though, so never actually skipped anything.
Definitely highly recommend this one. It is not breezy and soap opera dramatic like Such a Fun Age so expect a bit of energy and attention needed, but it’s still a page turner and lingers with you after you’ve finished.