It seems like half the world is reading this book at the moment, so we all probably know that it’s a book about two very light-skinned (and wavy-haired) Black sisters whose lives divide when one chooses to live as if she were white – “passing over” as it’s called in the book. I absolutely loved this book and could not put it down; although it was obviously written before the massive surge in reading of BIPOC people’s lives, it has a timeliness about it and the differences between Black and non-Black experiences that serve as useful education. However, I have read numerous comments about it being important to still read books for their literary or entertainment value, rather than just because they teach us some kind of po-faced lesson, and this book certainly ticks those boxes, too – I couldn’t put it down towards the end and sat up late again to get it finished.

So, Stella and Desiree are twins growing up in a semi-mythological town (it doesn’t appear on maps; why this happens does get explained) town in the Southern US which has basically bred darkness out of its own population; they are in fact descendents of the town’s founding father. The town acts as a kind of chorus in the book: for example, when Desiree, who has seemingly married the darkest man she can find, brings her daughter back home,

Each time that girl passed by, no hat or nothing, they were as galled as when Thomas Richer returned from the war, half a leg lighter, and walked around town with one pant leg pinned back so that everyone could see his loss.

Stella, on the other hand, having had a couple of dry runs, manages to pass as white, and although she slips up a few times and has a very awkward relationship with her only Black neighbour, who she is drawn to even though she has been instrumental in trying to stop her move in, and is in fact instrumental in having her driven out (I’ve seen some reviews describe her as becoming a ‘good white woman’. While I appreciate the 60s were a different time, and while it is interesting to have her in a fairly standard rather than, for example, overtly racist family, I do think there would have been white women then who would not have done those two things), she doesn’t get found out by her own actions. However, even not found out, she is sort of hollowed out, with no real friends, no sister and mother, not able to relax for a moment.

We pass to the stories of their two obviously very different daughters, and things get even more interesting, plot and character wise. We also find out more about two men who love two of the women who are not on the path of canonical masculinity but offer different perspectives on manhood and created as opposed to blood families, Early in one generation, Reese in another. I just love these kind people and the additional layers they add to the book, and also the range of different life experiences in changing and dressing, from Black women passing as white through a teacher with a twice-monthly drag act to a convincing and lovely trans character. And yes, in a way you have to go to the big city to find this variety, but that’s a trope of the small town coming of age story genre this novel also belongs to.

A quote that sort of sums up the all sorts of powder kegs that could be lit in this book:

She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth, but by then, it was too late. She had rung the bell, and all her life, the note would hang in the air.

This book exists in the context of other books like Nella Larsen’s “Passing” but adds new layers to that, and brings it up to date. Another context I would put this book into in terms of my own reading preferences places it with Ruth Ozeki, Larry McMurtry, Michael Cunningham, Terry McMillan and Gish Jen. Yes, two white males there, but I’m by no means saying it’s good because it’s as good as them, I hasten to add. Like I like in my music a certain American whimsical whine in the singer, one strand of things I really like in novels is a clear, matter-of-fact voice that offers often astounding but also everyday experiences in a sort of reportage style, as if it was just plainly stating the facts. While still beautifully written, this book fits in with those others that I have loved for years, and I will certainly be picking up the author’s other novel and looking out for more.

Thank you to Little, Brown Book Group for providing me with an e-copy of this book in return for an honest review. “The Vanishing Half” was published on 11 June.