‘My Dark Vanessa’ is a challenging book – immensely uncomfortable to read but impossible to look away from. It’s also a powerful one, brilliantly written and thought-provoking. As a debut novel, it’s an exceptional achievement, establishing Kate Elizabeth Russell as a literary force. This is the sort of book you have to be in the right mood to read, but one that lingers long after the final page.
Aged fifteen, a scholarship student at an exclusive boarding school in Maine, Vanessa Wye entered into a sexual relationship with her forty-two-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, the same teacher is publicly accused of sexual assault by a former student, and Vanessa’s entire world turns on its head. He can’t be an abuser. The relationship he and Vanessa had was love, the greatest love story of her life – wasn’t it? As the world shakes with the #MeToo movement, Vanessa grapples with everyone’s insistence in painting her a victim – and the man she has never shaken free from a villain.
Vanessa Wye is a brilliant protagonist, but not a likeable one, which is at the heart of what makes this book such a powerful read. Aged fifteen, she’s an outcast – she’s lost her best friend, Jenny, to a new boyfriend, and as a poor kid from rural Maine she doesn’t really fit in her polished, exclusive school. Her connection with Mr Strane feels like fate – he’s the only one who truly sees and understands her.
Aged thirty-two, she’s still an outcast, but an outcast with sharp edges. Her entire life has been defined by one teenage relationship, and she can’t seem to extricate the broken pieces of herself from him; she isn’t sure that she wants to. She fills in the gaps with alcohol, weed, casual sex – men who make her feel like she did at fifteen. Sometimes, in the dead of night, she still calls him. She hates herself after, but it’s the only time she ever feels at peace.
The story is set across two timelines – Vanessa at fifteen, and Vanessa at thirty-two. The entire book is told from Vanessa’s perspective. Russell mentions in the author’s note at the end that she was advised by editors to explore Strane’s perspective, but she refused, and I think it’s all the better for it – Vanessa’s head is an uncomfortable place to be, but there’s a real tension and atmosphere from being constantly submerged in it. It forbids the reader any escape from the horrors of Vanessa’s life – after all, she has none.
“Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?… it’s my life… This has been my whole life.”
The writing style is exquisite, but also challenging. Vanessa struggles with seeing her relationship with Strane through a negative lens – part of her knows it was wrong, but she’s also always seen it as a love story. He’s the most important figure in her life. Accordingly, parts of the novel are written very much like a romance, albeit a twisted one, a narrative choice that won’t agree with every reader. This is an explicit book, and while some elements are clearly abusive, Vanessa sees others quite differently, forcing the reader to consider them through that lens too. The writing is highly readable, flowing beautifully and painting incredibly detailed imagery – but its strength forces the reader to take a step back during certain scenes because of its sheer visceral and discomforting nature.
A big part of the novel focuses on what it means to be a victim. Vanessa struggles to see herself in any of the victims splashed across the media in the #MeToo era. Can you still be a victim if you didn’t say no? Can you still be a victim if you enjoyed it? Can you still be a victim if you love your abuser? Vanessa has been groomed and moulded until she can’t look at herself without also seeing Strane. To hate him would be to hate herself. Her musings are painful but vital – it’s easy to sympathise with abuse victims in an abstract way, but far more challenging to consider the marks left behind and the effects those have for the rest of a person’s life.
This definitely isn’t a book for everyone. Anyone with sensitivities around abuse, especially sexual abuse or abuse of minors, will likely find this book too much. Similarly, those who need a likeable protagonist they can connect to won’t find that here. However, for those with interests in human psychology or who want to understand the impact of abuse, this is a powerful read. Highly recommended.
Published by Fourth Estate
Hardback: 31st March 2020
Paperback: October 2020