*Above image is The Bullfighter, by Juan Gris, but I saw some visual resonance with the book that I found compelling.
There has been serious buzz around Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, which has been likened to Toni Morrison’s first novel (!). The book follows the stories of twin sisters born in a Southern Black community. One of them runs away and secretly passes as white. The other escapes an abusive relationship and brings her daughter — who is much darker than her mother, and for whom passing would never be an option — back to the town she once tried to escape.
The novel is a rich and deftly textured pastiche of doubles, mistaken and forged identities, echoes, and othernesses. We explore multiple vignettes in which we see splits, halves, “others,” some of them inevitable and others shaped at the hands of willful characters. For example, we have sisters born as twins and the inherited racial characteristics (i.e., color of skin) of the characters in this novel — that is, facts of biology that cannot be tampered with. And then we have the decision of Stella to pass as white, Reese’s gender reassignment, and Kennedy’s acting career, in which she is often publicly confused with the character she portrays in a popular soap opera. There are so many doubles and identity changes that the novel feels nearly Shakespearean. (Doubles of all kinds abound in Shakespeare — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a play in a play and full of mistaken/swapped identities in particular — and there is an entire body of critical literature on the functional practice of “doubling” in Shakespearean theatre, by which actors played multiple roles, a strategic move that often enabled the audience to glean thematic connections between separate plot-lines.) But we have the sense in Bennett’s book that these doubles are not strategem but substance, so intense is her focus on the logistics of “splitting.” We look closely at the complications of passing as someone else (even the offhanded slips in tongue where Stella’s past life is unwittingly revealed), the pain of undergoing gender reassignment (from the risk and cost of testosterone-riddled concoctions purchased by Reese in back alleys to the recovery from surgery and, of course, the emotional toll all has taken), the agony of erasing a past in pursuit of a new identity. The focus on these logistics of transition are further signaled by the title: the vanishing half, not the vanished half. We are drawn to the messy metamorphosis itself, not the befores and afters. The title further calls into question the permanence of these evolutions: are the characters ever able to fully escape their first identities? Are they always in a state of vanishing but never fully vanished? This is perhaps a matter of perspective: many characters meet Reese and never know that he was once a woman, just as many never know that Stella is passing as white. But many of the characters closest in, the ones who knew the “befores,” appear perpetually engaged in the act of hunting, tracing, tracking, unearthing the “former” version of their loved ones.
If it’s not yet clear, I was flat out astounded by Bennett’s dexterity in constructing a text that felt as though it rippled with doubles and echoes. The narrative was tautly-written in that sense, though the prose at times belied that complexity in its accessibility and seeming straight-forwardness, itself a feat. It was an easy read, the story moving quickly and compellingly in approachable prose–but the meat will stick with me for some time.
What did you think?
+Audibooks I’ve particularly enjoyed recently: Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums and Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me. I love listening to memoirs narrated by the authors themselves — their voices, intonations, expressions give so much away! It took me a minute to warm up to Reichl, but my God is her food-writing transcendent. I could listen to her talk about French food forever. It’s absolutely sensational, in every sense of the word–you see and taste the food with her artful language, which is both (paradoxically!) precise and imaginative. Unbelievable. I learned a lot, technique-wise, listening to her talk about food. Kalb’s book is basically a love story between herself and her deceased grandmother, and it is heartbreaking and tender and has a message that bears repeating in 2020: “If the earth is cracking behind you, you put one foot in front of the other.“
+These woven accent tables would be such a chic and inexpensive way to outfit a guest bedroom with two bedside tables — see how they’ve done that in the second picture? When Mr. Magpie and I were outfitting our home in Chicago, we de-prioritized the guest room, investing in high-traffic, heavy-use areas like our living spaces and mini’s nursery. This would be such an affordable way to “finish” a guest bedroom and make visitors comfortable.
+I’m bowled over by some of the new designs at CB2 — this lacquered linen console table and this pedestal table (daydreaming of this in a formal entryway — wow wow wow) belong in the pages of Architectural Digest! Wow!
+I can’t stop daydreaming about this cardigan. Like, who even would I be wearing it? Same goes for this very-not-my-style shacket from IRO (look for less with this) — but could I make it mine, pairing with my Alexandre Birman kitten heel booties and skinny dark jeans?! OOO.
+This shawl collar pullover for a little boy is so good.
+This knit vest totally caught me off guard: it’s again not even my style, really, but I gravitated towards the coffee brown immediately, imagining myself pairing it with a crisp white shirt or layering over another knit.
+Can you even deal with this bunny puffer snowsuit for babies?! Oh my goodness.
+Crushing on ribbed knits at the moment, and this dress looks like heaven for a weekend spent at home.