Britt Benett ‘The Vanishing Half

Sometimes she wondered if Miss Vignes was a separate person altogether. Maybe she wasn’t a mask that Stella put on. Maybe Miss Vignes was already a part of her, as if she had been split in half. She could become whichever woman she decided, whichever side of her face she tilted to the light.

This book, my sixth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021 is an exploration of  possibilities and of contradictions, a story of  identical twins, the Vignes girls, Stella and  Desiree, born in the late 30s in Mallard. Mallard, a town founded in 1848 by Alphonse Decuir for “men like him, who would never be accpted as white but refused to be treated like negroes. A third place.” Whiteness was held as an ideal and blackness to be avoided, so several generations later the twins could have been “mistaken” for white. The girls, inseparable, at sixteen run away to New Orleans, living together in a black neighbourhood when one day without warning Stella dissapears, faced with the dilema illustrated in the openinq quote, she has decided to “pass over”. And from here on in, the twins diverge into two different lives.

The girls had maybe been closer than twins would normally be, having as young children hidden and watched their father being hung by white men as related by Willie Lee.

Leon couldn’t have written that note—the white men must have been angered over something else and who could understand their rages? Willie Lee heard that the white men were angry that Leon stole their business by underbidding them. But how could you shoot a man for accepting less than what you asked for? “White folks kill you if you want too much, kill you if you want too little.” Willie Lee shook his head, packing tobacco into his pipe. “You gotta follow they rules but they change ’em when they feel. Devilish, you ask me.”

For Stella to survive as “white”, no one must suspect her. She cuts out all contact with the black world, growing into her role as a housewife in the sixties and seventies, living through loneliness and boredom, as her husband Blake says:

“I understand, Stella, I do. You’re lonely. That’s right, isn’t it? You never wanted to move to Los Angeles in the first place and now you’re lonely as all hell. And Kennedy’s getting older. So you probably . . . well, you should take a class or something. Something you’ve always wanted to do. Like learn Italian or make pottery. We’ll find you something good to do, Stel. Don’t worry.”

But what happens with the next generation? Kennedy, her daughter who at the cusp of adulthood has no idea of her mother’s secret.

Remember The Persuaders with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis? Two such different lives. Desiree feels as though a part of her has been cut away when Stella dissappears, she has a child in New Orleans and eventually leaves the man and moves back home to Mallard fourteen years after leaving:

The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort. The barely awake customers clamored around him, ten or so, although more would lie and say that they’d been there too, if only to pretend that this once, they’d witnessed something truly exciting. In that little farm town, nothing surprising ever happened, not since the Vignes twins had disappeared. But that morning in April 1968, on his way to work, Lou spotted Desiree Vignes walking along Partridge Road, carrying a small leather suitcase. She looked exactly the same as when she’d left at sixteen-still light, her skin the color of sand barely wet. Her hipless body reminding him of a branch caught in a strong breeze. She was hurrying, her head bent, and-Lou paused here, a bit of a showman-she was holding the hand of a girl, eight or so, and black as tar.
“Blueblack,” he said. “Like she flown direct from Africa.”

Years later working in Los Angeles Jude Winston, serving drinks at a rich persons party sees her mother Desiree, but it can’t be, yes coincidence brings her to Stella who refuses to acknowledge her. Eventually then “black as tar” Jude meets Kennedy and a whole new generation in a whole new world, the 80’s, and Kennedy must come to terms with her familly’s story.

I found this a truely fascinating and well written book, and had never heard of “passing over”.

First Published in English as “The Vanishing Half” in 2020 by Dialogue Books
Translated into french by Anne Plantagenet and published as “L’autre moitié de soi” by Autrement in 2020.

The quotes in French.

Parfois, elle se demadait si Mlle Vignes n’était pas une personne à part entière, un double qui avait toujours fait partie d’elle. Elle pouvait être l’une ou l’autre, en fonction du profil qu’elle offrait à la lumière.

Leon ne pouvait pas avoir écrit ce message; la colère des Blancs devait venir d’autre chose, mais pourquoi un telle rage? Willie Lee, le boucher, avait entendu qu’ils reprochaient à Leon de casser les prix et de leur voler leur travail. Mais comment pouvait-on abattre un homme juste parce qu’il acceptait moins que ce qu’on demandait?
“Les Blancs te tuent si t’en veut trop, ils te tuent si t’en veut pas assez, soupira Willie Lee en bourrant sa pipe. T’es censé suivre leurs règles, sauf qu’ils les changent quand ça leur chante. C’est vicelard.”

“Je comprends, Stella. Sincèrement. Tu te sens seule. C’est cela? Tu ne voulais pas partir à Los Angeles et tu sens terriblement seule. Sans parler de Kennedy qui grandit. Alors, tu dois sans doute…Tu sais ce que tu devrais faire? T’inscrire à un cours. Faire quelque chose dont tu as toujours rêvé. Apprendre l’italien, faire de la poterie, ce que tu veux. on trouvera, Stel. Ne t’inquiète pas.”

Le matin où l’une des jumelles disparues revint à Mallard, Lou LeBon se précipita au diner pour annoncer la nouvelle et, aujourd’hui encore, des années plus tard, tout le monde se souvient du tollé qu’il provoqua lorsqu’il franchit les portes vitrées, en nage, la poitrine palpitante et le cou assombri par l’effort. Les clients mal réveillés braillaient autour de lui — une dizaine, même si, par la suite, ils seraient plus nombreux à prétendre avoir été présents, ne serait-ce que pour pouvoir dire qu’ils avaient été, au moins une fois dans leur vie, témoins d’un événement vraiment excitant. Dans cette petite localité rurale, il ne se passait jamais rien qui sortait de l’ordinaire. Le dernier fait notable était justement la disparition des jumelles Vignes, et ça remontait à plus de quinze an. Ce matin d’avril 1968, donc, comme il se rendait au travail, Lou avait aperçu Desiree Vignes qui marchait le long de Partridge Road, une petite valise de cuir à la main. Elle était la même que lorsqu’elle était partie à seize ans: le teint clair, couleur sable légèrement humide. Avec son corps sans hanches, elle lui faisait penser à une branche battue par un vent violent. Elle se hâtait, la tête courbée, et — ménageant son effet, Lou marqua une pause à cet endroit — elle tenait la menotte d’une fille de sept ou huit ans, noir comme le goudron.
“Noir-bleu, précisa-t-il. On aurait dit qu’elle débarquait d’Afrique.”


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