I’ve been in two minds as to whether I should include Brit Bennett’s bestselling second novel, The Vanishing Half in my list of Dementia fiction narratives. The greater part of the novel does not touch upon the subject of Dementia. It’s an engaging, and incredibly timely, exploration of race issues in North America. Twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes, have grown up in Mallard, a tiny rural southern black community where lightness of skin is seen as desirable. The twins escape Mallard at the earliest opportunity and move to the big city where their lives diverge and take very different paths. Desiree marries a black man and after the relationship falls apart, moves back to her mother’s house in Mallard, with her daughter who is significantly darker than her. Stella, finding she can pass as white, marries a rich white man and moves to the West coast where her daughter grows up entirely unaware that she is mixed race.
It’s a brilliant novel and a really engaging read and, like many contemporary novels, does not touch on the theme of Dementia until the final chapters. Lately, I’ve been noticing this as a reoccurring trope in contemporary fiction, especially novels which follow a kind of family saga narrative arc. As the protagonists -in this case the twins’ mother- grows older, they develop Dementia. I’m not questioning the appropriateness of Bennett’s choice to explore Mrs Vignes’ Dementia experience so late in the novel. However, in some novels, Dementia can feel like a tagged on afterthought or a neat way to resolve unresolvable plot issues. I’ve been noticing an increasing tendency to use a character with Dementia as a plot device. Confusion, memory loss and failure to recognise familiar people can, in fictional terms, be a handy device for creating mystery or suspending a moment of revelation. This is particularly apparent in the current craze for Dementia narratives in crime fiction. (I hope to write more about this at a later date).
In The Vanishing Half, Mrs Vignes’ Dementia allows Bennett to swiftly and seamlessly reintroduce the long lost twin Stella, who has returned to Mallard decades after her initial escape. Her mother’s confusion and her inability to tell past from present means she accepts her prodigal daughter’s unexpected return with absolutely no questions. For Mrs Vignes’ it’s as if Stella never left. The cynic in me, could argue that Bennett uses Dementia as a handy device to resolve a lot of her plot lines in a swift and overly simplistic way. It’s awfully neat, to watch a family who’ve been fragmented and at loggerheads for three hundred pages, become united by their mother and grandmother’s Dementia for a handful of pages at the novel’s end. However, for the most part Bennet’s portrayal of Mrs Vignes’ Alzheimer’s is reasonably convincing and it’s so rare to see an exploration of Dementia within a black community I felt it important to include The Vanishing Half.
I also felt compelled to note that Bennett’s inclusion of the line, “Alzheimer’s Disease was hereditary, which meant that Desiree would always worry about developing in,” is neither helpful nor accurate. Less than 1% of Dementia diagnosis are hereditary and ill-informed statements like this can cause distress and even panic in readers. I enjoyed The Vanishing Half immensely and I will defend to the hilt, the writer’s right to explore and record other’s experiences. But when it comes to publishing factual statements like the one above, especially in widely read novels like The Vanishing Half, I think it’s absolutely essential that the information conveyed is well-researched and accurate.
The Vanishing Half was published by Dialogue Books in 2020