My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.
2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.
2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?
Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.
I have been dreading reading this one and yet, I have also wanted to read it as well. I have never really wanted to read Lolita either because of its very problematic themes so me picking this one up was a surprise even to me.
I think this is one heck of a hard read, I have had to put it down, soothe myself and read something else before I could pick it up again. This is such an unsettling and uncomfortably look into a young girl’s life as it’s being exploited by a man so much older than her. The story flips between the past and the present as Vanessa’s life unravels in those years. I think as far as Vanessa as a teenager is concerned, the author did a brilliant job of showing how it would look and feel like to a teenager, how her naivete could be her undoing. Reading this book as an adult is a test of strength because we, as a reader, can see how the grooming and everything else is just so obvious but to a teenaged Vanessa, it’s something else entirely. Something that felt right.
I am absolutely glad that Vanessa’s life was affected by this and that it still has effects of the obvious kind in her adult life. She’s still not sure if what she had with her teacher could be considered as abuse or even rape because she technically did say yes. She was even enthusiastic about it all. We see how Vanessa is still visiting with and is in touch with Strane and how it’s hurting her even she still strives to find that feeling of ‘romance’ she felt back when she was a teenager. #MeToo movement has made her think more about her relationship with Strane and it’s muddled her opinions even more as she tries to see if it was truly abuse. How she’s still trying to convince herself that it was love and not something ugly.
One of the best things I read in this one was the way Vanessa tried to understand where abuse begins and where it can be considered as a proper love past a certain age, it’s a question a lot of people have had and it was realistic to put in there. There’s just so much about this book that manages to shine some light on the themes and things that matter that I am sure I am not doing it any justice. Al throughout the novel, Vanessa sees how Strane tries to tell her how much power she has over him despite never really proving it, Vanessa’s confusion about her own worth and her inability to accept help when it’s being offered. It’s just written so brilliantly and I loved that about the book.
Overall, I will say that it is such an informative look into sexual abuse and grooming, it also raises an important question of right and wrong and Vanessa struggling with it is the best thing I have read in a while. The ambiguity of it makes My Dark Vanessa a great read.