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The New York Times fiction bestsellers list has been dominated by Brit Bennett’s second novel, which I’d seen all over social media and was eager to read to see what all the fuss was about. Worth every penny.
As a premise, Desiree and Stella Vignes, twins from a little French village that can’t even be found on a map, flee away from their small hamlet and live their lives for years to come. In alternating time periods, it is revealed what happened to each twin after they split and their different experiences in the 1960s and 1980s of living and growing up in America.
But there’s so much more to this book than meets the eye. Bennett deftly delves into a slew of important issues, including race, racism, white privilege, and how one’s identity is formed. The novels that followed, such as The Vanishing Half, dealt with similar themes and scenarios.
Books like The Vanishing Half
Passing, by Nella Larsen
According to Brit Bennett, she was inspired to write The Vanishing Half after reading Passing by the Iconic Nella Larsen. At its heart is a story of boyhood pals whose lives have taken drastically different turns in New York City during the 1920s.
There’s Irene Redfield, whose charity balls made her and her physician husband well-known in Harlem’s wealthy Black community. And there’s Clare Kendry, a white woman married to a racist white man, pretending to be white.
All of their past actions, choices, and beliefs are upended when they reunite and see what the other is doing with the life they could have been living.
Passing is an eloquent exploration of race, class, community, and identity in an eloquently written book. Fans of The Vanishing Half will like this story of two women who transcend the color line, even though it was written about a century before Bennett’s book and takes place at a different time period.
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
First up on this list of novels like The Vanishing Half, Homegoing by Yea Gyasi addresses familial bonds, the pathways we pursue, and the difference in experience. Both Effia and Esi are born in different communities in 18th-century Ghana, with neither knowing the other.
Effia marries an Englishman and lives in luxury at Cape Coast Castle, while her sister Esi languishes in the castle’s dungeons, awaiting her fate as a slave market victim.
The narrative follows the lives of Effia and Esi’s descendants through Ghana’s wars, its struggle with the slave trade, and the British colonization. Throughout the course of the book, we follow Esi and her ancestors from Africa to America, from the plantations to the Civil War to the coal mines of Harlem.
Homegoing was written by Gyasi at the tender age of 26, which astonishes me. To read this story is to experience two women’s lives as they are shaped by various historical factors that are beyond of their control.
Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones
If you’re seeking for a book like The Vanishing Half because of the intense relationship between Stella and Desiree’s offspring, go no further than Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones.
The story revolves around James Witherspoon, a husband, father, and bigamist living in an Atlanta suburb in the 1980s. James has two families: one that is open to the world, and one that he keeps private.
James’ carefully constructed worlds crumble as the daughters from each of his families form friendships, destroying all of his delusions.
When I started reading Silver Sparrow by Jones, I was immediately drawn into the backstories, the logic and spontaneous rationale of the characters. Like The Vanishing Half, it was tough for me to put down.
The Wedding, by Dorothy West
Both The Vanishing Half and our upcoming book explore class and race in fascinating and thought-provoking ways. An intimate look at the African American middle class is provided to readers through The Wedding, which was written in 1995 and set in the 1950s,
In the Oval, a proud community of the East Coast’s black bourgeoisie, the Coles are a renowned family. Shelby Coles and her fiancé are engaged to be married soon. Some guys Shelby may have picked were eligible because they were the “correct color” and had the “proper vocations.”
Meade Wyler, a white jazz pianist from New York City, is Shelby’s new love interest instead. Older residents of the Oval will have to confront and deal with the changes that are about to take place as a result of their community’s impending unification.
Even if Bennett had some inspiration for her own work from the film adaptation of The Wedding, West’s depiction of an African-American family struggling to overcome established racism and classism is appealing.
My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Like The Vanishing Half, Oykinan Braithwaite’s debut novel My Sister, the Serial Killer is darkly funny and examines how two sisters from the same family may end up so differently.
Korede knows to reach for the bleach and the rubber gloves when her younger sister Ayoola calls in distress, as do the majority of their elder sisters.
At least three partners have been slain in self-defence by Ayoola so far, but she and Korede have done their best to cover up her crimes, washing bloodstains and dispossessing the bodies. Even though Ayoola has threatened Korede, Korede has decided not to press charges since blood is thicker than water.
That is until Ayoola begins to pursue a doctor Korode not only works with as a nurse, but also falls in love with. Ultimately, Korode will have to make a decision between her sister, her heart, and what is right for her family.
Once again set in Nigeria and focusing on our relationships with our siblings, My Sister The Serial Killer offers a light-hearted look at this topic.
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith and White Teeth, a writer and thinker who frequently stuns me, are the subject of our next book, like The Vanishing Half, which examines London’s racial and social history.
Two World War II veterans become unusual companions in this story, which is written in an expansive style. A Jamaican woman several years his junior married Archie Jones and the two went on to create a strong-willed daughter named Irie, a name that ironically means “no issue” in Jamaican. Archie’s marriage to Clara has re-energized his zest for life.
And then there’s Samad Iqbal, who gets married later in life and has twin sons who defy their father’s efforts to steer them in the right direction.
White Teeth is a remarkable novel that, like The Vanishing Half, captures the generational, national, and sexual mindsets of the time period via the lives of these individuals, which are rich in detail. Smith maps London’s cultural history and future through the lives of these characters.
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
It’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s melancholy novel Half of a Yellow Sun that follows White Teeth, which depicts London’s rich historical fabric.
Between 1967 and 1970, the Nigerian Civil War had a profound impact on the lives of three main characters in the book. For 13-year-old Ugwu the houseboy of a university professor is Olanna, the professor’s lovely mistress and Richard the young Englishman is enamored of Olanna’s twin sister.
As Nigerian troops close in, the three must flee for their lives, casting doubt on everything they previously took to be true, everyone they once trusted, and anybody they once loved.
The end of colonialism, class, and race are all examined in depth. A devastatingly great read like The Vanishing Half, Adichie’s Half of the Yellow Sun is one of the most dramatic and deeply emotional novels about modern Africa I have ever read.
My Name is Leon, by Kit de Waal
When Kit de Waal began writing My Name Is Leon, she drew inspiration from her previous work as a family lawyer, an adoption panelist, and an advisor to social services.
Leon, a nine-year-old boy who is overjoyed to be a big brother to infant Jake, is soon separated from him as their mother Carol struggles to care for them all.
Jake gets adopted since he is a newborn and white.
That’s because Leon doesn’t fit any of the above descriptions.
A majority of the story is told from Leon’s perspective, and we see how he deals with the loss of his family and the search for his brother.
In My Name is Leon, another excellent book like The Vanishing Half, de Waal, another author like Bennett, masterfully shows the contrast in experience navigating this environment as a white person and as a black person.
A work like The Vanishing Half packs a powerful punch when it comes to family ties, ethnicity, prejudice, identity, and cultural history. Just a few of the many adjectives that may be used to characterize the books above that document the black experience include heartbreaking, heartwarming, uncomfortable, thought stimulating, fascinating, and significant.