20 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: Brixton Hill and The Vanishing Half

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I enjoyed Lottie Moggach’s two previous social-issue literary thrillers, Kiss Me First and Under the Sunand Brixton Hill is very much in the same vein. Rob is nearing the end of a seven-year sentence for manslaughter in an open prison in Brixton; he’s now allowed out on day release to volunteer in a charity shop. Rob knows that all he has to do now is keep his head down and be on his best behaviour to secure his freedom, but an accidental encounter with Steph, an attractive, well-dressed woman, on Brixton Hill, threatens to risk all of that. Structurally, this novel, which switches between the first-person perspectives of both Rob and Steph, hits all its thriller beats. We’re kept guessing as to what Steph really wants from Rob, and how much he’s worked out about her motives, and Moggach weaves in the small clues very effectively. However, Rob’s narrative, in particular, delivers something even more interesting. Despite his many certificates from prison courses proving that he’s learnt to feel remorse and manage anger, he is uncertain about the possibility of true rehabilitation. He self-presents as a genuinely guilty perpetrator, but we are also left to judge how far his story is reliable, especially as Moggach deliberately limits how much we know about his crime. On the other hand, the novel’s depiction of life even in an open prison highlights how damaging and ineffective imprisonment is, and how difficult it is for released prisoners to aspire to anything in the world outside; the nature of Rob’s conviction means that it will never expire, and so even something like getting credit on a mobile phone purchase will always be hard for him. Brixton Hill kept me gripped, but it also left me with plenty to think about.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on July 2nd.

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I wanted to read Brit Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half, despite being underwhelmed by her debut, The Mothers, because I found the synopsis so intriguing. The Vanishing Half is about identical twin sisters Desiree and Stella, born into Mallard, a Louisiana town so small that it doesn’t feature on maps, and is distinguished by having an all-black population who pride themselves on having extremely light skin. Both sisters flee Mallard in adolescence for a more promising life in New Orleans, but Desiree returns in early adulthood with her small and ‘dark’ daughter, Jude, in tow, while Stella disappears into an entirely different life, passing as white, marrying a white man, and having her own daughter, Kennedy. Bennett arguably spends too much time setting this all up in the first quarter of the novel, which is pretty slow, but once it takes off, The Vanishing Half has some very interesting things to say about race. This is brought home most vividly in the chapters written from Stella’s point of view where she negotiates a friendship with a new black neighbour in her all-white neighbourhood; having accepted the social and economic privileges bestowed upon her by adopting a white identity, she now realises painfully how this excludes her from the friendship and trust of black women.

Similarly, when the two cousins eventually and inevitably meet, they have their own understandings of what race is and means: Kennedy declares that she isn’t black, while Jude insists that Kennedy is. Both cousins’ interpretations seem rational: Kennedy has been brought up as a white woman, with access to everything that would have been denied to her were she racialised as black, but at the same time, her grandfather was still lynched by white racists, and her mother’s decision has left her estranged from her own family history. Bennett’s aim is not to adjudicate this argument, but to draw attention to how constructed and yet how real the category of race is. Jude’s long-term relationship with a trans man, Reese, seems to be designed to explore this theme further, but here I felt the novel fell short: Bennett doesn’t say enough about Reese’s life or how he understands his identity for this thread to take off. Nevertheless, this is a strong second novel that takes Bennett’s highly readable writing to the next level.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

22 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: Brixton Hill and The Vanishing Half

  1. Is the first author a relative of Deborah Moggach, I wonder? It does sound a very clever book though not one for me. And I just reviewed The Vanishing Half this morning! I really loved it, and I quite liked the slow set-up. I did feel Reese got a bit lost, too, but then he was just a character who was there, with his own issues, I suppose, but not a central “look, trans experience” type of thing. I think the whole book was quite subtly underplayed in a way (Stella fitting in to a “standard” community which is allowed to show its racism slowly rather than marrying someone more obvious, etc, Early fitting into a role as a carer) and I liked that about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Deborah is her mother!

      I absolutely agree that trans characters should be in novels that aren’t about trans issues, but I guess what felt jarring for me was that the inclusion of Reese’s character felt pretty pointed given the subject-matter, especially as there seemed to be an initial parallel drawn that was never followed through. I’ve just read your review and I like the idea about showcasing different kinds of masculinity, but I guess that didn’t come through for me in the actual novel. Neither Early or Reese felt vivid enough as individuals for this to work. However, this is only a criticism of that aspect of the novel – I liked the rest of it a lot!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great reviews! I’ve been wanting to read The Vanishing Half and am even more excited to get to it now. The synopsis sounded so good but the hype always leaves me a little wary! I appreciate your balanced thoughts on what the book does and doesn’t do best.

    Liked by 1 person

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