The morning that Desiree Vignes came home, the town looked transformed. Somehow, unfamiliar.
“A town always looked different once you’d returned,” she realized, “like a house where all the furniture had shifted 3 inches.”
That’s where we begin in Brit Bennett’s terrific new novel, “The Vanishing Half.” It’s set in the late 1960s in the town of Mallard, La., an odd, almost mythological place that Desiree has, at last, come home to and that her twin sister, Stella, has fled for good.
The idea for the town of Mallard came to Alphonse Decuir, the freed son of a white master and an enslaved woman, in 1848. He decided to create a “third space” for people who are light-skinned. “Each generation lighter than the one before,” even as he knows that lightness will be a “lonely gift.”
And that’s what Mallard is for Stella Vignes, who escapes to New Orleans with her sister, and then disappears to a life in which she’ll pass for white.
Bennett says she heard about the place years ago from her mother and began to imagine a story that delves into colorism, the discrimination within communities of color for darker-skinned people.
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At one point, Stella recalls how easy it was at first to become white: “... her decision seemed laughably obvious. Why wouldn’t you be white if you could be?”
It’s a particularly painful and complicated question in this summer of protests and police violence. Bennett, who has been quarantining in Brooklyn through the pandemic, never imagined as she conceived the novel several years ago, that it would land just as Americans confront the urgent cultural change she’s writing about.
My Thread Must-Read is Brit Bennett’s new novel, “The Vanishing Half.” You can hear my interview with Bennett later this month.
Next week: Why your summer reading list MUST include one of the best crime writers you’ve never heard of.