My Dark Vanessa
By Kate Elizabeth Russell
Published by Fourth Estate 10th March 2020
What it’s about?
Vanessa Wye is 32 years old. She works in a hotel in Portland, Maine and is meeting a therapist following the death of her father. Another former student from her boarding school makes allegations of child abuse against Jacob Strane, a charismatic English teacher and Vanessa is approached by journalists wanting to hear about her own relationship with Strane when she is 15.
Split between 2017 and 2000, Vanessa recounts the way in which Strane groomed and raped her. She struggles to deal with the conflict between the reality of the situation, the way she felt about him and the shadow this relationship has cast over her entire adult life.
What I think?
My Dark Vanessa is one of the most anticipated novels of the year.
It’s both compelling and horrific.
There is no question that Strane grooms Vanessa. She is a bright but lonely teenager at a boarding school. Isolated and vulnerable she is the perfect target for him. He flatters her and lends her literature that appeals to teenage sensibilities – Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
Vanessa’s feelings towards him are complex. Throughout his manipulation Strane reinforces the fact that it Vanessa who is making the choices. He asks permission to do everything sexual before it happens. While sometimes she is disgusted and has moments of clarity, she also believes this to be a loving relationship and is able to repress the parts of him and his treatment of her that she does not like. She finds Strane exciting and enjoys the illicit nature of the relationship. It allows a isolated and lonely girl to feel special. However, the devastating trauma of the abuse is evident in the impact it has had on Vanessa’s future relationships.
This book is so dark.
As a teacher myself I found the ease with which Strane is able to hide his abuse quite horrifying. Other teachers and students raise concerns that are so easily dismissed as teenage girl crushes. Vanessa is blamed and willing accepts responsibility to protect her abuser.
I felt the first half of the novel, that mainly focuses on Vanessa boarding school and the build up of the relationship with Strane was fast paced and compelling. I found myself both wanting someone to intervene and end the abuse at the same time as wanting to find out what happens next. There are points when it is even possible to sympathise with the repugnant Strane which shows the quality of the writing.
The second half of the novel is slower. Vanessa is stuck in a cycle of depression and drink. She is both self-pitying and angry. She maintains her “relationship” with Strane over the years and he manipulates her to the very end. She is unwilling to believe she is “just another girl” Strane abused over the years.
This not an easy book to read. It’s dark and disturbing. It’s a powerful look at the complexities between abusers and victims, rape and consent.
I would definitely recommend it but it may be triggering for anyone who has experienced abuse.
Thank you Netgalley for the advanced reader copy in return for an honest review.
My Dark Vanessa is published next week and you can pre-order from:
Waterstones: click here
Amazon.co.uk: click here