the colors of life

The Other Half of Self

by Brit Bennett

Translated from English (United States) by Karine Lalechère, Autrement, 480 p., € 22.90

Two sisters, two destinies. In The Other Half of Self, Brit Bennett imagines the turned upside down lives of twins born in Louisiana in a still segregationist United States, mixed-race people with fair skin not necessarily to be seen as “women of color”. Desiree will live like a black woman, Stella will pretend to be white. An imposture at the origin of an impassable ditch.

Unless their daughters, twenty years later, recreate a bond? But Jude is black. “ Noir blue. No, a black that tended to purple. As black as coffee, asphalt, outer space. As black as the beginning and the end of the world ”. And Kennedy, his cousin, was born with “ milk skin, blond hair, eyes so blue they were almost purple ”.

Louisiana, populated by descendants of planters and slaves

What can happen to such radical contrasts within the same family, foreign to itself? Stretched over the steep ridge of the destiny of the Vignes twins, The other half of you devoured in one go, like a thrilling thriller. But it is a tale, cruel and flamboyant, with its faceless monsters and heroic figures.

Young American novelist noticed in 2017 with The beating heart of our mothers, Reading Prize for the best first foreign novel (Otherwise), Brit Bennett roots this new book in a Louisiana populated by descendants of planters and slaves, half-breeds fascinated by the possibilities offered by fair skin. ” Warren Fontenot once traveled by train in the white section. Questioned by a suspicious controller, he had been able to answer him in good enough French to convince him that he was a European with a dark complexion. Marlena Goudeau had turned white by the time she obtained her teacher’s certificate. At the refinery, a foreman had mistaken Luther Thibodeaux for a white and raised him ».

In this game of masks, the trump card is called in Creole the white pass, for “Someone who crosses the color line permanently”, without ever being caught. A dangerous feat.

Toni Morrison, an essential word

A fair-skinned black woman who passes for Blanche, a family divided by skin colors. These themes have fueled a number of fictions: films Mirage of life by Douglas Sirk and Shadows by John Cassavettes, the novel Task by Philip Roth, the work of Toni Morrison. On this motif in the colors of life, Brit Bennett, 30, makes a new voice, sensitive and strong. A generous writer, she explores the emotional bond in all its nuances: the springs of love, the insecurity of lack, the trauma of loss, the daring of reconciliation, the strength of forgiveness …

Brit Bennett confronts the great American novel

From Louisiana to Boston, from Los Angeles to New York, from Minneapolis to Houston, the Vines intersect on American territory from the 1940s to the late 1990s. With this family fresco, Brit Bennett, a deeply gifted novelist, unabashedly, confronts the great American novel. Opening up avenues for reflection on identity, sorority and family ties, her story flows in a fluid style, with sentences stripped of affectations to say the essential and suggest the rest.

His characters, particularly female but also with unforgettable portraits of men, testify to a rare delicacy of line. Over three generations, from grandparents Leon and Adele to the tormented Reese or the patient Early, they form around the twins Desiree and Stella an endearing group portrait. Their complexity, their resilience, their flaws, embody them with authenticity.

Self-quest, need for security, hope of appeasement in the face of pain, The other half of you speaks a universal language. By leading its heroines towards their truth, it turns out above all to be a fascinating initiation novel.

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