My Dark Vanessa is a book I’ve been seeing everywhere since becoming more active again on bookstagram, and it is well worth the hype, in my opinion. This is such a brilliantly written, nuanced exploration of agency, consent and trauma. If you’re in the right head space to read this, I highly recommend.
Dark and melancholic, My Dark Vanessa explores the long-lasting psychological impacts of a teenager’s relationship with her high school English teacher. Told in alternating timelines, we follow Vanessa as a 15-year-old teenager who believes she’s passionately in love with her English teacher and as a 32-year-old woman now forced to reflect on the relationship after he is accused of abuse by multiple current and former students, ultimately coming to the realisation that it was not romantic as she’s believed her whole life.
This book is extremely difficult to read at times. Russell is unflinching in her depictions of both sexual and constant psychological abuse, but what makes it so difficult to stomach is the way Vanessa romanticises her abuse. You see Strane manipulate, groom and gaslight her into thinking she’s been singled out, into thinking she’s special, different and this is a great love story, when in reality she’s being exploited.
Strane’s grooming is so gradual and effective that Vanessa convinces herself she wanted this as much as he did, has convinced herself of this her entire life. We see the way the abuse has affected her throughout her lifetime– courting relationships with other predatory men during her teenage years and during her 20s, becoming obsessed with one of her college professors, squandering her potential, working dead-end jobs and abusing substances to get herself through the day, the way viewing media with underage sexual abuse triggers panic attacks, how she dissociates during sexual activity. Yet throughout the book, Vanessa continues to tell herself and everyone around her that she wanted it, telling her therapist at one point that she “needs it to be a love story…. because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?… This has been my whole life.”
The way Russell depicts trauma response is phenomenal. Vanessa is quick to deny and justify her abuse, as do many victims and survivors. I liked the juxtaposition between Vanessa’s response to her abuse and Taylor’s (a fellow victim of abuse by the same teacher) response to the abuse she endured, too. Where one denies and justifies the abuse, the other comes forward, wanting to speak out and get justice for what happened to her. It shows that there is no one right way to react to abuse– everyone deals with situations differently.
Russell also explores how intrinsically abuse and society are linked and has created a story that criticises society for the way it protects abusers and enables and upholds power imbalances. Russell shows how deeply ingrained the sexualisation and abuse of young girls is ingrained in society, so much so that some victims of abuse question whether they’re victims at all. Before the abuse, Vanessa would think and say some feminist-like things about how girls shouldn’t be judged by boys. After Strane’s abuse and manipulation, however, she is quick to judge and dismiss other victims and girls. Russell depicts how insidious rape culture is in our society.
My Dark Vanessa does not have a happy ending. I think a lot of readers will be disappointed by that, but unfortunately it felt very realistic, and suited the tone of the rest of the novel. We see how institutions failed in their obligations to protect their students, and while we see some justice, it may not be the justice we were hoping for. I believe it ended on a kind-of hopeful note, though.
My Dark Vanessa is a brilliant debut, and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more books by Kate Elizabeth Russell in future. Excellently written and expertly exploring agency, consent, trauma and the long-lasting effects of abuse, My Dark Vanessa is a book that will stick with me for a long time. Very highly recommend, if you’re in the right headspace to read it.
Trigger warnings: rape, pedophilia, gaslighting, psychological abuse, child pornography, talk of suicide, substance abuse.