Surprises are rare in the little farm town of Mallard, Louisiana, but writer Brit Bennett knows that every small community is suffused with secrets and stories. In her second novel, “The Vanishing Half,” she immediately captivates readers with the mysterious “lost twins” Desiree and Stella Vignes, teenagers who “vanished from bed after the Founder’s Day dance, while their mother slept right down the hall.”
It spoils nothing to say that the novel begins with Desiree’s eventual return home, trudging down Partridge Road in 1968 holding a small leather suitcase and towing a young girl along with her. Mallard’s inhabitants are stunned to hear that she’s reappeared and even question whether it’s really her – although, as a waitress remarks, “even a blind man could spot a Vignes girl” because of her hazel eyes, wavy hair, and skin “the color of sand barely wet.”
Such fine gradations mean everything in Bennett’s fictional town, where colorism runs rampant among its African-American residents – a distillation of real historical attitudes whose bitter legacy endures today. In Bennet’s America, the town of Mallard was founded in 1848 by an ancestor of the Vignes girls: A freed slave named Alphonse Decuir, who inherited acres of sugarcane fields from his white father and former owner. Alphonse pledged to build a town “for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.”
Generations later, the twins explore the two split futures that Alphonse renounced, dividing their lives “as evenly as their shared egg.” Stella stakes out a new life far from Mallard, passing as a white woman and gaining access to new and better opportunities. Desiree marries “the darkest man she could find,” though the relationship becomes abusive and she eventually leaves it. Desiree returns to the place she had once – to her husband’s disbelief – said she hated. After all, he tells her, “Negroes always love our hometowns. ... Even though we’re always from the worst places. Only white folks got the freedom to hate home.” Every piece of the novel’s plot is a Maypole ribbon weaving around that core of haven and race; according to Bennett, “You can escape a town but you cannot escape blood.”
While the plot often hinges on coincidences as dramatic as a movie script, the twins’ characters feel real and complex enough for the reader to accept those developments as family lore. And Bennett makes it easy to see why the twins make the choices they do. None of their choices are without consequence; the repercussions of each sister’s decisions are passed down to their own daughters, who vanish in their own ways and whose stories eventually take center stage. When Stella asks her wild teenager, Kennedy, why she can’t just be herself, her daughter shoots back “Maybe I don’t know who that is” – a telling consequence of Stella’s hidden past.
Leaping backward and forward through time, the story alternates narrators and passes through two generations as it explores its difficult truths. The book’s most uncomplicated romance, for example, involves a transgender man – a Texan who leaves behind the name Therese to become the “golden brown and handsome” Reese in California. “How real was a person if you could shed her in a thousand miles?” Reese wonders, a question that the Vignes family fully comprehends.
Teens will likely be as drawn to this book as their parents, but readers should note that the story includes brief but vivid scenes of child molestation and a lynching.
Behind the characters lies the constant presence of Mallard, which is too small to find on a map, but has an impact heavy enough to become its own kind of character. Each person who encounters it seems to either push it away or pull it close. Like another powerful, fictional home that Desiree contemplates, there’s no place quite like Mallard; living there is like being “in The Wizard of Oz, but instead of a house dropping on her, she’d fallen through the roof and awakened, years later, dazed to realize that she was still there.”