My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is the debut novel from this American author, published by 4th Estate. Translated into over twenty languages, My Dark Vanessa has become a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. (Trigger warning: this novel and review contain references to mental and sexual abuse by a teacher towards a minor.) Inspired by her own experiences as a teenager, Kate’s novel focuses on a schoolgirl and the abusive relationship between herself and one of her male teachers.
After 15-year-old Vanessa Wye loses her best friend’s attention to a new boyfriend, she finds herself alone in school and under pressure from her mother to ‘fit in.’ She joins a writing group to improve her poetry and makes a new friend in her forty-five-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane. For the first time in her life, she’s complimented on her looks and her fiery hair; for the first time in her life, she feels truly seen. He singled her out; he chose her over everyone else. Before she even understands the attention she’s receiving, Strane puts his hand on her knee, hidden under a work desk, but in front of the whole class. She is fifteen when they first have sex.
She loves him and he loves her. She finds solace in the copy of Lolita he gifts her, others have had a love like theirs before, but she knows society would never understand. As he said ‘It’s just my luck that when I finally find my soul mate, she’s fifteen years old.’
Vanessa obsessively refreshes the Facebook post. How could this woman, another one of his former students, openly accuse Strane of sexual assault? That’s not what happened; Strane admitted to touching another girl’s leg years ago, but that’s all it was. He’d never loved anyone like he’d loved Vanessa, never had and never would. Surely it was just someone getting caught up in the #MeToo movement, because she was the only one for him. What they’d had was exceptional because she was special. It had to have been love because, after a life revolved around him, if it wasn’t….what was it?
Review of My Dark Vanessa
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell has been on my wishlist since mid-2019 due to the plethora of incredible writers whose quotes blanket the rear cover. When a debut novel is loved by the likes of Louise O’Neil, Stephen King and Sarah Pinborough, it’s hard to ignore. There was some controversy around the time of its publication that the content of this fictional novel echoed the contents of Wendy C. Ortiz’s 2014 memoir Excavation (which I have since added to my reading pile), which is when Kate stated:
“I would like to share with my readers that My Dark Vanessa, which I’ve been working on for nearly 20 years, was inspired by my own experiences as a teenager. I have previously discussed the relationships I’ve had with older men and how those relationships informed the writing of My Dark Vanessa. But I do not believe that we should compel victims to share the details of their personal trauma with the public. The decision whether or not to come forward should always be a personal choice. I have been afraid that opening up further about my past would invite inquiry that could be retraumatizing, and my publisher tried to protect my boundaries by including a reminder to readers that the novel is fiction. ”
This highlights the scariest thing about this novel; that this experience is not as unique as you may think.
After so much exposure, it can be hard for a book to live up to the hype, but My Dark Vanessa does that and then some. The general content and devastatingly sharp, evocative writing means this isn’t an easy read (their first sexual encounter led me to have to put the book down and take a few hours out), but it’s a voice I haven’t read before; following Vanessa from absolutely refusing to accept the truth about her relationship and seeing herself as a star-crossed lover, through to admitting that the relationship that shaped her life was much darker.
‘I need it to be a love story. I need it to be that.’
As well as eloquently explaining how Strane focused in on his most vulnerable student and managed to create the false image of her being in control on their relationship, the book also hits on some very prevalent points of growing up as a teenage girl.
‘Somehow I sensed what was coming then. Really though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, the threat of violence.
They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grow up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.’
My Dark Vanessa makes an incredibly compelling and thought-provoking read. I completely understand how some people may not feel a book such as this would be traditionally ‘enjoyable’ to read, and enjoyable is definitely the wrong word. Instead, this book is a chilling portrayal of manipulation in one of it’s scariest forms which is as important as it is unsettling. I cannot recommend My Dark Vanessa highly enough; this will be ranking high in my top books of 2020.
If you like this, you’ll love Peach by Emma Glass