"People lived in bodies that were largely unknowable. Some things you could never learn about yourself -- some things nobody could learn about you until after you died."
Jude Winston, of Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half, comes to this conclusion as she considers how much she enjoys the cadaver work in medical school, what she calls, "the mystery of dissections as well as the challenge." But those largely unknowable bodies? They're not just student reflections; they are the very heart of this book.
Every critic on the planet has noted the connection between Bennett's novel, rooted in the soil of one light-skinned twin sister's decision to abandon her past and pass as white, and Nella Larsen's groundbreaking Passing. And to every critic I can find, this book is about race. And it is. But it is also more than that.
Desiree and Stella grew up in Mallard, Louisiana, a place that doesn't appear on maps and ultimately disappears altogether. But the people of Mallard, and their intense colorism, were real. Desiree and Stella leave the town as teenagers, and without warning, their lives take very different paths: Desiree to an abusive marriage which causes her to return home with her daughter Jude; and Stella to a job and then a marriage, both accomplished because everyone thought she was white.
Stella's decision to pass is a real and important part of the story. She is Black, and she lives as White, and every day, she lives with that tension. But to reduce this book to a story of a Black woman passing is to put it back in Larsen's time. And it is decidedly more.
There are reviewers who have argued the strength of the novel is in those sisters. They feel the novel is weakened when it widens to include the experiences of Desiree and Stella's daughters. I must respectfully, but full-throatedly, disagree. The book is about those daughters and the continued experience, the ongoing lineage, of the trauma that occurs when your body feels like a betrayal.
This aspect is most evident in Jude's relationship with Reese. Like Stella, Reese abandoned his family and his past to become someone else. But in his case, he was on a journey toward his true self, the one his body did not acknowledge. Stella, in fact, isn't the point. She is an example of what happens when a person feels forced to live a lie. She is what Reese - and every other trans person in the world - is fighting against. To prove my point definitively would require I spoil certain aspects of the book, which I am unwilling to do. But I remain convinced that this book is about much more than just race.
It is about all the ways we can know our bodies intimately and still feel betrayed by them. The ways we hate our bodies or attempt to alter them, the ways we hide them, from ourselves and others. And the freedom and life that comes from letting our bodies be known.
There is an extended section near the end that circles decay, decline, the AIDS crisis, and death. If you view this book as a treatise on race, you will not understand this section. You will dismiss it and argue that the author didn't know how to end it, let it drag out unnecessarily, left us unresolved. I believe that Bennett knows exactly what she's doing, and this section is her tell. When someone dies, it's not their body we miss. Jude understands the pain of loss and its ubiquity:
"That was the thing about death. Only the specifics of it hurt. Death, in a general sense, was background noise. She stood in the silence of it."
In that silence, there is freedom. In death, we can be freed from the body that has equally thrilled and delighted and harmed and betrayed us. In death, we can be remembered for the person we were inside that body. There are, as Jude reminds us, things we can only learn about a body after it is gone. And that, I think, is the point.