Book Review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Every now and then a book arrives in your life that you know is going to stay with you long after you have read the last page.

Often those books are filled with comfort, they resonate and feel completely relatable, a ‘go to’ tale to raise cheer.

Well in the case of My Dark Vanessa, the very opposite is true.

Don’t get me wrong, this book will stay with me. I want it to stay with me. And I want it to stay with anybody who reads. Particularly young women, particularly those in authority, particularly those in a position of trust.

But I doubt they will find comfort in it’s pages, but they will find truth. A truth that everyone needs to acknowledge and understand.

My Dark Vanessa is the story of stolen youth, in fact a stolen life. It focuses on Vanessa Wyes. An unusual teenager, romantic and bright, she is awarded a scholarship at prestigious Maine boarding school. A loner, struggling to find her place she enters a relationship with Jacob Strane, her English teacher. He is much older, not physically attractive but charming. He begins by praising her poetry, singling her out for additional attention in class, handing her challenging and individual texts. Soon this progresses to passing physical contact; a hand on a knee, a kiss on her head. Then it goes further.

Even calling this a relationship makes me uncomfortable. It is an ‘interaction’ that Vanessa defines as love; indeed as the her greatest love. But which the reader clearly sees as abuse.

When the novel begins Vanessa is in her early thirties, working, by her own definition, a mind numbing job in a local hotel. None of her early literary promise is fulfilled. Vanessa engages in periodic bouts of alcohol and drug abuse, references to broken relationships and casual sex litter her narrative.

And Strane is an ever present force in her life. When he is publicly accused by another former pupil of sexual assault Vanessa is forced to examine her experiences and start to redefine what she has clung to as her one great love.

My Dark Vanessa is raw, complicated and powerful.

It is an effective, but painfully stark portrayal of the power imbalance within abusive relationships, particularly those built on natural relationships of trust, like a student and teacher.

It is an expert portrayal of the process of grooming, exploring the myriad of ways an abuser can twist the situation. Classically Vanessa is an outsider, put bluntly she is easy prey. Strane is wholly aware of his strength. And he plays with power, seeming to hand it over to Vanessa at points and then taking it away in an instant. He is a master of control; control of the situation, of emotions, of futures. It seems unlikely that Vanessa is his first and only victim.

We see Vanessa blame herself. Time and again Strane makes her responsible for the situation, seeks to make it her fault, makes it clear that all the consequences of this relationship will be felt by her.

And he is right. The novel provokes many strong emotions but there is an overwhelming sense of anger that Vanessa pays the continuing price for this situation. At the time of her abuse no one steps forward to be her champion. There is no one to tell her that this isn’t love. That these dark feelings of shame, disgust and fear aren’t part of some dark romance that everyone experiences. That love should open up your life, not close it off. That’s it should help you grow, not shut you down. That this situation is so far from healthy, that she doesn’t need to be defined by this forever.

The power and pain of this novel lies in the focus on the long term effects of Vanessa’s experience. Years later she is still in a turmoil of denial. A state that goes far deeper than an inability to acknowledge and accept what has happened. We find her making excuses, rewriting history, redefining relationships and social norms.

Vanessa is in despair. In the face of Strane’s public accusations by other women her long term survival mechanisms of normalisation are crumbling. By defining the relationship as love she has refused to be a victim, attempting, in some way, to take control. The most painful thing to acknowledge for both Vanessa and the reader is that if she admits this relationship was abusive then her foundations, the events that have defined her life are rotten at the core.

As the events move out of Vanessa’s control, as more women step forward and Strane makes an unforeseen but decisive move, there begins a spiral of self degradation. Echoes of past behaviour re-emerge and it is clear that Vanessa is asking for help in the only way she knows how.

This book is one of the most powerful and important novels I have read for a long time. It doesn’t hold back in it’s portrayal of the realities of abuse. At times it will make you wince, at times it will make you deeply uncomfortable and I guarantee it will make you angry.

But it will also bring understanding, and empathy for all those victims whose stories have gone unheard and shed light on those relationships society has in the past ignored or in some cases normalised. And for all of that it will engender hope.

Rachel x

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