Book Review: The Vanishing Half

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational story about a pair of light-skinned Black twins, Desiree and Stella, who end up leading drastically different adult lives. Desiree marries a darker man in Washington D.C., but soon returns to her hometown in Louisiana to raise her daughter, Jude, who is also dark-skinned. Stella, on the other hand, passes as white, marries a white man, and raises a white child. The Vanishing Half shows how Desiree and Stella’s choices affect their own lives and the lives of their children.

The book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Told over the course of four decades, The Vanishing Half follows four main characters: twins Desiree and Stella, and their daughters Jude and Kennedy. I normally prefer one highly nuanced main character to multiple potentially-underdeveloped characters, but I thought this story offered a good balance between the number and depth of characters. I found Stella’s character to be the most nuanced, which makes sense given that she made the enormous decision to live the rest of her life as a white woman – there’s a lot to unpack there.

Actually, there’s a lot to unpack throughout the entire novel, as Brit Bennett critiques institutionalized racism, internalized racism within the Black community, classism, materialism, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and intergenerational trauma. What struck me most about Bennett’s commentary was how relevant it still is today. Certain scenes that were set in the 1970’s and 80’s – which included white people focusing on “black-on-black” crime instead of larger systemic issues, white people centering their own feelings of guilt in their relationships with Black acquaintances, and rich white families using generous donations to get their children into elite colleges – could have been written about the year 2020. I appreciate that Bennett included examples of racism that still occur now, because they emphasize how deeply prevalent racism is in the United States.

The Vanishing Half is also full of subtle commentary in the form of sentences that seem straightforward, but actually reveal a lot about the novel’s characters. One example of this that sticks with me is when Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, compares a play that she’s starring in to Hamlet. The third-person narrator follows up on this, saying that “the play was nothing like Hamlet but she said it with such conviction that you almost believed her.” Not only does this sentence convey a lot about Kennedy’s self-assuredness, but in the context of the scene, it also reminds the reader who is afforded the privilege to be confidently wrong.

My biggest critique of The Vanishing Half is that the plot is largely driven by unrealistic coincidences (yes, coincidences, plural). But Bennett acknowledges the implausibility of key events, with sentences like: “Statistically speaking, the likelihood of encountering [redacted for spoilers] was improbable but not impossible.” Bennett follows-up that acknowledgment by moving into a passage about one of the characters becoming a statistics teacher. It’s like she is saying “yes, this coincidence is pretty implausible. Now we’re going to move on.”

NOTE: because I am cisgendered, please take my opinions in the following paragraph with a massive grain of salt, and feel free to let me know if you disagree.

One thing that I’m unsure about is the portrayal of Reese, a trans man. For the most part, I thought that Reese was characterized compassionately: he is a loving and supportive partner, he has as much depth as any other supporting character in the novel, and he is never needlessly exploited for being trans. But there is a moment where Jude claims that she understands Reese’s desire to change his outward identity, because she knows about Stella, who has chosen to pass as white. Being so tired of racial discrimination that a Black woman chooses to live the rest of their life as white is heartbreaking and complicated…but I don’t think that it’s directly comparable to the struggle of not having your personal sense of gender match your assigned gender/birth sex, and I wish that this had been addressed. Again, I am a cisgendered person, so I may be way off the mark here. If you think that I missed anything important about Reese’s characterization – positive or negative – please feel free to let me know.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Vanishing Half, especially if you like thought-provoking novels that are rich in social commentary. While this book didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, there was still a lot that I liked about it.

Notes:

  • So far I haven’t found any reviews of The Vanishing Half by trans book-bloggers. If you are a trans blogger who has read this novel and would like to share your review with me, I would love to read it!
  • If you are interested in reading and supporting more works by Black authors, please feel free to check out the following resources: my ever-growing Black lit challenge shelf on Goodreads, Fatma’s list of 2020 book releases by Black authors, this post from Emily which includes a TBR list of books by Black authors, and this extensive radical reading list.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY! Racism is not just an ugly part of the United States’ history – it is still deeply prevalent today. Please check out this list of anti-racist resources, which includes links to various funds supporting black lives, as well as educational resources.

Book Review: Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a historical fiction novel centered around the life of William Shakespeare’s family. Told largely from the perspective of William’s wife, Agnes, the novel covers Agnes and William’s romance, the birth of their three children, their long-distance relationship, and the grief of the Shakespeare family after the death of their son Hamnet.

The book: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Hamnet was an enjoyable read for me, but I definitely went into the novel with the wrong expectations. For some reason, I was under the impression that the book focused entirely on the death of William and Agnes’ son Hamnet, and how their grief inspired William Shakespeare to write the play Hamlet. In actuality, Hamnet is a book in two parts. The first part alternates between chapters telling William and Agnes’ love story, and chapters focusing on the days leading up to Hamnet’s death. The second part of the book, which is written as one long chapter, shows the family in their grief after Hamnet has passed. This format would have worked so much better for me if I hadn’t expected the entire novel to focus on the grieving of Hamnet’s death, but because I did have that expectation, I found myself getting pretty impatient with the first part of the book.

Although Hamnet wasn’t what I expected, I still found it compelling. Maggie O’Farrell does an excellent job of making the reader feel connected to 16th-century England by drawing upon relatable emotions and experiences, like the stigma and shame of being a social outcast, and the overwhelming burden of grief. And with the novel’s release in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the passages depicting societal anxiety surrounding the Plague were eerily familiar. But at the same time, O’Farrell juxtaposes those relatable elements against historical details that unquestionably place the novel in the 16th century. Children die frequently, mothers die frequently, cruel parenting methods are common, and medical knowledge is so limited. That balance between timeless human experiences and very specific historical details was the most striking part of the novel for me.

I also appreciated how much the novel focuses on Agnes, as opposed to her very famous husband. William Shakespeare’s works are incredible, and he is famous for good reason – but part of what allowed him to become so successful was the invisible labor of Agnes. By centering so much of the novel around Agnes and the work she put into running her household and taking care of her family, O’Farrell demonstrates that Shakespeare probably couldn’t have become so successful without major sacrifices and support from Agnes.

Hamnet is also beautifully written, and Maggie O’Farrell is the master of showing, not telling. In this scene, for example, where young William Shakespeare defends himself against his abusive father, O’Farrell writes: “The sight of the mark seemed to enrage the father further because he lifted his arm again, for a second blow, but the son reached up. He seized his father’s arm. He pushed, with all his might, against him and found, to his surprise, that his father’s body yielded under his. He could push this man, this leviathan, this monster of his childhood, back against the wall with very little effort. He did so.” O’Farrell could have just said that William hit his father back, but instead she turns a small action into an immersive scene. With that being said, there were definitely some instances where the flowery language was too much for me, and where I thought a succinct description would have been just fine.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Hamnet. My expectations of the novel did affect my enjoyment of it, though, so I would recommend that other readers not go into this novel expecting it to focus entirely around one specific event.

Book Review: How We Disappeared

Alternating between timelines in 1942 and 2000, How We Disappeared follows Wang-Di, who is taken from her Singaporean village during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, while Wang-Di is still reckoning with her trauma from the war, 12-year-old Kevin overhears a shocking confession from his grandmother’s deathbed, leading him to uncover secrets about what she lived through during WWII.

The book: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The prose in this novel is absolutely lovely. Lee tells her story in three distinct sections: young Wang Di when she is captured during WWII, old Wang Di trying to overcome the trauma that still haunts her in the year 2000, and Kevin investigating his grandmother’s history in 2000. All three sections are beautifully and convincingly written, with the historical scenes set during WWII especially immersive. There are some passages where Kevin uses language that seems too advanced for his age, but he sees the world in a very curious and childlike way, so he was still believable as a 12-year-old to me.

How We Disappeared isn’t just well-written; it is also written with immense compassion. The horrific details of Wang Di’s sexual slavery are never told more graphically than they need to be, so the book never enters trauma-porn territory. Lee does describe the horrors that the comfort women endured (rape, violence, near-starvation, and unsanitary living conditions, to name a few), but she spends just as much time focusing on the psychological effects and aftermath of sexual slavery. What broke my heart the most wasn’t the violence that the comfort women endured (although it was certainly harrowing), but the stigma and shame that followed them for the rest of their lives after the war.

I also enjoyed the way the various timelines eventually weaved together. Before the connection between Wang Di and Kevin’s stories became clear, the transitions between the two sometimes felt a bit disjointed, but I felt that the slightly discontinuous storytelling was worth it for the way the two stories eventually connected. Also – minor spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it! – I’m not sure how realistic it was for Kevin to figure out the connection between his story and Wang Di’s, but it was such a satisfying conclusion to the novel that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

All in all, I really enjoyed How We Disappeared. Almost all of my WWII education was focused on Europe and the Holocaust, so it was very eye-opening to read this well-researched and beautifully written story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The novel was challenging and heartbreaking at times, but it was absolutely worth the read. I highly recommend this book!

Book Review: Where The Crawdads Sing

Both a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, Where The Crawdads Sing follows “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark from early childhood, when she is abandoned by her family and left to survive alone in the marshes on the North Carolina coast, to early adulthood, when she becomes a suspect in a murder case. The two timelines alternate throughout the book until Kya’s coming-of-age trajectory eventually catches up to the murder trial.

The book: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery/coming-of-age
My rating: 3 stars out of 5

The gorgeously immersive setting of the marshes on the North Carolina coast immediately drew me into this book, but the first 100-or-so pages moved very slowly, plot-wise. Some of that slowness seemed necessary to portray Kya’s self-reliance and loneliness. The mundane details of her fishing, cooking, and doing handiwork in her shack demonstrate how hard she worked to survive alone. The long, slow-moving passages where Kya observes wildlife and ruminates in nature allow the reader to really feel the slowness and loneliness of Kya’s day-to-day life. But that being said, the novel still could have been around 60-70 pages shorter.

It’s also worth noting that Owens phonetically spells out the characters’ Southern dialects. I found this jarring and uncomfortable at first, but quickly got used to it and even found that it further immersed me in the Southern setting. I don’t think that the phonetic spelling of dialects in this book was problematic, since Owens was born and raised in southern Georgia and speaks with a Southern dialect herself.

Where this book really shined for me was in its tender portrayal of societal and environmental issues. Through Kya’s story, Owens demonstrates how hard it is to get an education in certain parts of the United States, how individuals from poor communities can end up in perpetual cycles of disadvantage, and how being “othered” by society has detrimental effects on a developing child. While showing all of this, Owens also compassionately rejects stereotypes: she never judges Kya’s mom or siblings for abandoning their family, she demonstrates that Kya is quite intelligent and resourceful despite lacking a formal education, and she even portrays Kya’s abusive father with considerable nuance (not so much so that it excuses his abuse – just enough to show that he is complicated).

I also enjoyed the way Where The Crawdads Sing spans multiple genres. The book is described as a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, but being set in North Carolina in the 1950’s and 60’s before the Civil Rights Movement, it is also very much a historical fiction novel. The book also crosses into romance at times, and into courtroom drama toward the end. And as mentioned before, there is beautifully vivid nature writing throughout. However, some genres were explored more successfully than others. I found the legal/courtroom drama scenes to be the most engaging and evocative, and the romance to be a bit trite.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s not a perfect novel, but I appreciated its immersive setting, its themes of accepting others and rejecting stereotypes, and the page-turning courtroom scenes toward the end.


Side note: based on the Goodreads rating (4.5), most readers really connected with this book, so perhaps I’m being too harsh or just didn’t connect with the writing as much as others did.

Unimportant fun fact: the author, Delia Owens, and I went to the same universities (although not at the same time, and not in the same order).