"The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett deals with two light-skinned...

"The Vanishing Half" by Brit Bennett deals with two light-skinned African-American sisters, one of whom is passing for white. Credit: TNS/Penguin Random House

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books, 352 pp., $27)

Race is much on America's mind now, and it also lies at the heart of Brit Bennett's moving and insightful novel "The Vanishing Half," the story of twin sisters who choose to live their lives as different races — one black, one white.

Like Bennett's bestselling debut novel "The Mothers," published in 2016, this book revolves around family relationships and secrets.This time it's the Vignes family of Louisiana. They are descendants of Alphonse Decuir, who founded the town of Mallard in 1848 "on the sugarcane fields he'd inherited from the father who once owned him." The light-skinned Decuir marries a mixed-race woman lighter than himself, with the goal of having lighter children.

All of the inhabitants of Mallard — so tiny and remote it doesn't appear on maps — follow suit down through the generations. In the mid-1940s, gentle Leon Vignes is for trumped-up reasons "lynched twice" — shot four times by a gang of white men in his home, he survives, only to have the men enter the hospital where he's being treated and kill him in his bed.

He leaves behind two young twins, Stella and Desiree, who grow into teenagers with "creamy skin, hazel eyes, wavy hair," pretty enough to keep their no-nonsense mother, Adele, busy chasing off boys. She especially dislikes Early Jones, a darker-skinned boy from out of town with whom Desiree has a brief but intense flirtation.

In 1954, at 16, Desiree and Stella run away to New Orleans. For a while they wallow in their new independence together, but one day Stella simply disappears, leaving her sister and mother heartbroken.

Each twin takes a surprising path. Desiree moves to Washington, D.C., trains to be an FBI fingerprint examiner and at the Bureau meets and marries Sam Winston, "the darkest man she could find." Fourteen years after she left Mallard, Desiree flees Sam and shocks the town by returning with her 8-year-old daughter, Jude.

Stella's seismic life change begins when she gets a job as a secretary in New Orleans by passing for white; at a job interview, a supervisor assumes she's white, and Stella doesn't correct her. Soon her very rich, very white boss, Blake Sanders, is flirting with her. When they marry and thereafter, he has no clue she is black. When Stella has a daughter, Kennedy, she's terrified to look at her newborn, then flooded with relief to see the baby's fair skin, blond hair and violet eyes.

The lives of each sister and the secrets they keep hidden drive "The Vanishing Half," which is skillfully structured and filled with richly developed characters who defy stereotypes. By turns poignant and funny, it's a timely look at the dual nature of race — an abstract construct, a visceral reality — and the damage that racism can inflict. 

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