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.
Date Published: March 10, 2020
Date Read: April 8, 2020
Publisher: William Morrow Books
No. of Pages: 384
Genre: Fiction, Contemporary, Adult
Trigger Warnings: Pedophilia, Rape, Sexual Assault
Reading this feels like watching a wreckage, logical thought would suggest you have to look away, but against all odds you just kept staring.
TRIGGER WARNING: Rape, pedophilia, sexual assault.
My Dark Vanessa is the kind of read that will make your skin crawl. You will feel uncomfortable and bothered by what transpired between Vanessa and Strane. It has this inexplicable pull, its reader dare I say, a willing victim. Its darkness is all consuming and powerful, like you’re under an immense grey cloud hovering above you for days. Reading this feels like watching a wreckage, logical thought would suggest you have to look away, but against all odds you just kept staring. It will leave you with unsettling feeling, a feeling you cannot simply shake off. A book that will stay with you for however long you like it. Impactful and so beautifully written. A narrative that needs to be said no matter how ugly it was. I kept telling myself its fiction, but who am I kidding, these unspeakable things can happen or is happening to so many girls out there. That’s why it is so bothersome and depressing to read.
My Dark Vanessa is a book that will challenge you. Not an easy read. Not a book I would typically reach out, nor a book I would read during this pandemic. I first listened to on audio from Scribd, and I tell you it has the most talented narrator.Listening to it sends a different kind of chill – a whole new level of horror. The reading experience magnified and heightened 10x more. It will suck you in like a vortex. A tip to maximize your reading experience, listen to audio while reading the book. That’s a sure way to ingrain the book inside your pretty head. It was a harrowing read from beginning to end. My Dark Vanessa brought chills as I listen through Vanessa’s ordeal with what had transpired when she was 15, and how it affected her and her disposition throughout her adult life. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s writing style was precise, lucid and not too overwrought with unnecessary description of a place or a person, which somehow works really well in the book. It was able to send its chilling message across without sounding pretentious. My Dark Vanessa dumped love, consent, complicity, rape and manipulation in murky water making it hard to distinguish one from the other. Thought provoking at best.
The complicated characters, especially the narrator – Vanessa, gave so much depth to the book, making it more repulsive and graphic but also will give you a feeling you just couldn’t quite place, like sympathy and pity. Vanessa, was an enigma, (just how Henry Plough said it), her character so complex. You couldn’t quite guess what would be her reaction to certain things. There is darkness within her that is very hard to fathom, a kind of darkness that follows her, looms over everything she touches. Jacob Strane’s character is predatory and manipulative, but the book was able to paint him in a certain light that shows he is so much more than what he is. From this you will understand why Vanessa reacted the way she did or how Vanessa regarded Strane, on why she always puts him in a pedestal. It was frustrating to read, and yet the book was not amiss to lay down the foundation of Vanessa’s character, which was riddled with misplaced maturity and boldness.
I cannot in good conscience haphazardly recommend this book to whoever asks for literary fiction recommendation, I believe you have to set the trigger warnings first and always proceed with caution. It is a hard read, and I know not everyone would like it. A challenging read with sensitive topic but ultimately needed to be addressed. You have to have the proper mind set delving into this one. It will hit you differently, unpleasant at times, yet you will develop some profound understanding.
Kate Elizabeth Russell definitely made her mark with this debut. Now I have high expectations from her. Best believe I will be looking forward to more of her writing.
“Girls in those stories are always victims, and I am not. And it doesn’t have anything to do with what Strane did or didn’t do to me when I was younger. I’m not a victim because I never wanted to be, and If I didn’t want to be, then I’m not. That’s how it works. The difference between rape and sex is state of mind. You can’t rape the willing, right?”