Rozette Rago for TIME

Jazz, as everyone knows, is built on the standards—the songs that every musician knows by heart. A similar dynamic undergirds the American literary tradition. Evergreen story lines make up the fabric of our collective narrative, endlessly fascinating, yielding fresh insights when passed through the imagination of a writer who finds new music between the notes of the classics.

Such a storyteller is Brit Bennett. Racial passing, the phenomenon at the core of her astonishing novel The Vanishing Half, is as familiar to American literature as “Lush Life” is to the American songbook. Yet Bennett is informed and inspired by the intensities and complexities of our present moment. If race is a construct, what about gender? What are the limits of self-definition? How can one delineate its wages and costs?

In jazz, many artists sing the standards, but in literature only the most gifted can revoice the classics, rendering them recognizable yet, well, novel.

Brit Bennett, take a bow.

Jones is the author of the novels An American Marriage, Silver Sparrow and The Untelling

Photograph by Rozette Rago for TIME

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