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Review: New novel explores race, identity, belonging

“The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett (Riverhead) A new novel explores the construct of race in the diverging lives of light-skinned black twins, one of whom transitions into a life as a white woman.

“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett is beautifully written, thought-provoking and immersive. It follows Desiree and Stella, who hail from the town of Mallard, imagined by its founder as a place for people like him.

“Lightness, like anything inherited at a great cost, was a lonely gift,” Bennett writes in an example of the profound wisdoms woven throughout the book. The older, wilder twin Desiree has little patience for the townspeople’s obsession with lightness. “Her father had been so light that, on a cold morning, she could turn his arm over to see the blue of his veins. But none of that mattered when the white men came for him, so how could she care about lightness after that?”

Even as Stella, the twin who transitions after leaving Mallard, sheds some of the burdens of being seen as black, she gets in its place the psychological toll of passing as white, of lying to those closest to her.

“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it,” Bennett writes. “But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become someone else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Issues of privilege, inter-generational trauma, the randomness and unfairness of it all, are teased apart in all their complexity, within a story that also touches on universal themes of love, identity and belonging.

“The Vanishing Half,” with its clever premise and strongly developed characters, is unputdownable and highly recommended.

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