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Brit Bennett’s ‘The Vanishing Half’ is a fierce examination of passing and the price people pay for a new identity

Brit Bennett’s new novel, “The Vanishing Half,” is about people who disappear, in search of another life, a better place. They linger in a netherworld, negotiating the present while beating back the past.

The Vigne sisters are identical twins in the 1950s, light-skinned girls with different temperaments. Desiree is bold, where Stella is shy. Their town, Mallard, La., is a place for people “who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.” The girls witness, through a cracked-open closet door, the lynching of their father at the hands of white men. They watch poverty crush their mother.

Colorism, racism’s ugly brother, infects their community. The girls are taught that dark boys “don’t want nothin good” and to stick to their own kind. Neither twin follows this rule later in life. They flee together to New Orleans for opportunity but lose each other in the process, “their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg.”

Desiree moves to Washington, D.C., marries and has a child. Her husband’s abuse sends her back to Mallard, child in tow. There she falls in love with “the wrong sort of boy,” the dark-skinned Early, a man who “was only good at getting lost” and who knew “the key to staying lost was to never love anything.”

Stella, meanwhile, suffers flashbacks of sexual abuse and passes into the white world, leaving her twin behind. She marries her white employer, Blake. “She hadn’t adopted a disguise or even a new name. She’d walked in a colored girl and left a white one.” Her subsequent life in Los Angeles is shrouded in secrecy, requiring constant performance. Perhaps the most painful scene in this novel is of Stella publicly objecting to the new black family moving into her white neighborhood.

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Bennett then shifts her focus to the next generation: the daughters of Desiree and Stella, as they grow up in the 1970s. The cousins are polar opposites. Jude Winston, the shy daughter of Desiree, is ashamed of her appearance. The light-skinned boy who kisses her at night won’t acknowledge her by day because of her “blue-black” complexion. Jude goes to UCLA on an athletic scholarship and begins a new life. She falls in love with a trans man named Reese. Reese used to be Therese but, like Jude, suffered at the hands of his family and community for simply being himself. Reese is best friends with a man named Barry, who becomes Bianca on the weekends. Reinvention is the name of their game. “You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.” Transgender passing, like racial passing, in this novel, has its pros and cons.

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Kennedy Sanders, meanwhile, is Stella’s outspoken daughter. She is blond with eyes “so blue they looked violet.” She uses the n-word as a youngster, goes on academic probation as a teenager and drops out of college to become an actress. Her romantic life consists of a series of men, including the married variety. Performance for Kennedy comes naturally.

“Acting is not about being seen, a drama teacher told her once. True acting meant becoming invisible.” Kennedy understands the superficial and builds her career accordingly. She is her mother’s daughter.

At age 26, Bennett established herself in 2016 with her debut novel, “The Mothers.” Her latest novel is a fierce examination of contemporary passing and the price so many pay for a new identity. The open wounds of the past remain, even as these characters build new lives, personally and professionally. Reinvention and erasure are two sides of the same coin. Bennett asks us to consider the meaning of authenticity when we are faced with racism, colorism, sexism and homophobia. What price do we pay to be ourselves? How many of us choose to escape what is expected of us? And what happens to the other side of the equation, the side we leave behind? “The Vanishing Half” answers all these questions in this exquisite story of love, survival and triumph.

Lisa Page is co-editor of “We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America.” She is assistant professor of English at George Washington University.

The Vanishing Half

By Brit Bennett

Riverhead. 352 pp. $27

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