Review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (2020) and A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley (1962; republished 2018)

Blurb for The Vanishing Half:

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passingLooking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

Blurb for A Different Drummer:

June, 1957. One afternoon, in the backwater town of Sutton, a young black farmer by the name of Tucker Caliban matter-of-factly throws salt on his field, shoots his horse and livestock, sets fire to his house and departs the southern state. And thereafter, the entire African-American population leave with him.

The reaction that follows is told across a dozen chapters, each from the perspective of a different white townsperson. These are boys, girls, men and women; either liberal or conservative, bigoted or sympathetic – yet all of whom are grappling with this spontaneous, collective rejection of subordination.

In 1962, aged just 24, William Melvin Kelley’s debut novel A Different Drummer earned him critical comparisons to James Baldwin and William Faulkner. Fifty-five years later, author and journalist Kathryn Schulz happened upon the novel serendipitously and was inspired to write the New Yorker article ‘The Lost Giant of American Literature’, included as a foreword to this edition.

Review:

I read these two brilliant books in succession, starting with The Vanishing Half, and I was so struck with both of them that I’ve decided to review them together in order to help me gather my thoughts. The Vanishing Half was published earlier this year by Dialogue Books, and I was so intrigued by it that I couldn’t resist pre-ordering. I was introduced to William Melvin Kelley’s writing this year as well, by @AnaBooks, who kindly sent me a copy of his short story collection, Dancers on the Shore, which has just been released by rivverun. You can read my review of the collection here. I was deeply taken with his writing, and immediately ordered A Different Drummer. I also now have a copy of Bennett’s debut, The Mothers, and am going to read Kelley’s A Drop of Patience and dem as soon as I can. I’m sure my fellow booklovers can understand my excitement at coming across two writers who have headed straight onto my all-time-favourites list!

Both of these novels have a fiercely original and confronting premise, highly relevant to the current discussions around racism, and a reminder that these issues are deeply ingrained in American society. Bennett’s novel introduced me to the concept of ‘passing’, which I had not come across before, and which raises all kinds of questions about how we construct ‘race’ in our society. The two sisters in her novel are light-skinned enough to bridge the colour divide. Desiree lives as a Black woman, marries a Black man, and returns to her hometown, Mallard, with her dark-skinned daughter. Stella ‘passes over’ and lives as a white woman, cutting all ties with her past and her family, and desperately concealing her secret from her husband and neighbours. In Kelley’s Southern town, Tucker Caliban, a Black farmer, starts a chain reaction which results in the entire Black population of the state leaving almost at once. The white folk are left behind to puzzle over what has happened, and what comes next.

A Different Drummer follows a fairly straightforward timeline, as we see how the events of the mass exodus unfold, but there are flashbacks woven into the story which add nuance and develop the relationships between the characters. The Vanishing Half is divided into six sections, moving forwards and backwards through the sixties, seventies and eighties, bringing to light the effects of the past on the present lives of the twins and their families. In both books the structure complements the narrative drive, and the reader is carried along by the events. Pacing is spot on in both: these are literary gems, but also page turners. There is an excitement and energy about both stories that feels fresh and kinetic.

For me, these books are first and foremost absolute masterclasses in character. Both Bennett and Kelley have the gift of being able to create characters that leap off the page and into the reader’s heart – each novel contains a richness of human portraits, people you wish were real, people you feel for as deeply as anyone you might meet in real life. The Vanishing Half made me fall deeply in love with Desiree, Early, Jude and Reese (Jude and Reese’s relationship is one of the most sensitively and beautifully depicted love stories I have read in a long time), and even Stella and Kennedy, towards whom I had a more complicated reaction, are so subtley and realistically complex in their motivations and behaviour that I found them just as fascinating. In Kelley’s novel, I was astounded by the depth of character he manages to imbue in persons who may not have that much ‘page time’, but who are utterly unforgettable. The scene in which Tucker teaches Dewey to ride a bike is an quiet, complicated joy of an extract, and I want to study it again and again to work out exactly where its pure brilliance comes from.

As Bernadine Evaristo states in her foreward to The Vanishing Half: “to call this an “issue-based” novel would be dismissive and undermining,” and I think the same could be said of A Different Drummer. These books are powerful, thought-provoking, moving, beautifully written pieces of literature, the kind of novels that change you a bit, that lodge their characters in your heart and make you understand a little bit more about the world and about human nature. The ending of A Different Drummer is just about the most affecting ending I have ever read: it punched me in the chest, and then gave my hand a gentle squeeze, as if to say: “I know, but look, there are good people in the world”. Similarly, at the end of The Vanishing Half, there is a glimmer of hope, a shining brightness for the future that now more than ever we must cling on to. I can’t recommend these books highly enough: novels like these are the reason I read.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is published by Dialogue Books and is available to purchase here.

A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley is published by riverrun and is available to purchase here.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (2020) and A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley (1962; republished 2018)

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