The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

What is identity to you? Is it the family you’re born into or the family you create? Is it race, gender, sexuality, career, choices, relationships? Is it how you see yourself or how others see you? Is it fixed or fluid?

The Vanishing Half explores the things that connect us to ourselves and to other people, forming lines across wide gulfs of physical and cultural distance. The book’s main theme is racism and colourism, but these issues are framed and explored in the wider context of personal and social identity, along with gender, sexuality, class and community.

This book’s biggest achievement is getting to the heart of these ideas without sacrificing engagement with the story. Bennett works quickly – in a few lines she can paint a place, a person or a relationship that sparks to life in your mind. Within moments, you’re there in the New York loft, the homestead in Mallard, the suburban LA street – surrounded and invested in the characters’ rich, real lives.

The only reason I’ve given this book 4 stars instead of 5 is that, for me, it took a little while to really get into the meat of the story and all it has to say. One of the reasons for this is that the book follows a number of characters in shifting timelines. But it’s this breadth of narrative that allows the whole lives of these characters to be spread out before us, where we can begin to recognise connections, similarities and echoes between them.

One of the things I love most about this book is that it encourages you think for yourself. Instead of being given opinions like, “this is how you should define yourself – this isn’t,” “this is how this thing is experienced,” or “this is the right way to live, this is the wrong way,” which you look at then file away, Bennett shows you – “look, here in a experience of life and identity – see how it connects to this person’s experience?” and leaves the rest up to you.

Insightful and challenging, sometimes brutal, often tender – this is a book that’ll leave something open even once you close the cover. Highly recommended!

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