My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

My Dark Vanessa: red hair drapes over the titleA Review by Emma Streeton

I think I am still processing what this book has raised for me. As a result it has taken me some time to write this review. To be quite honest I am not even sure I can gather the words to give this book the review that it deserves. It was just that powerful. How do you write about a fictional love affair between a teacher and a 15-year-old student that is actually a predatory relationship? There are no easy answers to that question. But that is what happens in My Dark Vanessa and it is what Russell managed to write so well.

The novel alternates between 2000 and 2017 as we see how Vanessa is groomed and then abused by her teacher Jacob Strane. We see the repercussions she must deal with as an adult who does not allow herself to comprehend that the relationship was in fact manipulative, abusive and wrong.

Vanessa falls for her abuser

I think the real power of this book is that it allows the reader to see how Vanessa truly falls for her abuser. When she is reliving her teenage years, we are inside her head and experiencing his manipulation and eerie charm firsthand. The reader sees exactly what is happening and how Vanessa gets taken in by her abuser. He is enticing. He makes this lonely girl feel special, intelligent and wanted. Vanessa is not stupid. She has heard of child abusers but Russell clearly highlights how predators get away with it. Strane convinces Vanessa he is the exception to the rule. He seduces her into thinking that they are two dark souls who understand one another and are meant for each other in this harsh world. If she raises doubts Strane convinces her that she is the predator, the instigator and the problem. Vanessa stays quiet.

Vanessa’s struggle

The protagonist, Vanessa, is a very well constructed character. The author does a fantastic job of showing Vanessa’s struggle. We see her as a fifteen year old torn between love and repulsion. Later, we see an adult struggling to face what she experienced. You see how destructive this kind of abuse is because it makes Vanessa doubt herself and lose sight of who she really wants to be. There is an interesting and insistently oppressive quality to the prose. You want to escape the quiet turmoil of Vanessa’s story but there is also a desperation to see how it all ends. The reader is championing for Vanessa to be okay and for Strane to get his comeuppance. This makes it a real page turner.

The wrap

I completely underestimated how dark this book was actually going to be. Given the subject matter I knew it would not be a light read but this was one of the hardest books I have ever read. My Dark Vanessa is definitely not the kind of novel that is fun to read. It is not escape fiction. It is an ambitious debut novel, dark and disturbing. Without a doubt it is a book that will generate a lot of discussion, mixed opinions and discomfort. I salute Russell for what she has managed to produce: a novel that cuts deep and has an awful lot to say about our society today.

Book details

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9780008342265
ISBN10: 0008342261
Imprint: Fourth Estate, HarperCollins
Released: 10/03/2020
Format: paperback, 384 pages
Category: Fiction & related items / Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)