BookBrowse Reviews My Dark Vanessa by Kate Russell

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My Dark Vanessa

A Novel

by Kate Russell

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Russell X
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Russell
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2021, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Kate Elizabeth Russell's debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, is a complex exploration of guilt and innocence set against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement.

The plot of Kate Elizabeth Russell's My Dark Vanessa follows the life of Vanessa Wye, who at the age of 15 begins an affair with a teacher of hers, Jacob Strane, not quite thirty years her senior. The first-person present narration first shows Vanessa at 32 years old, as she becomes aware of social media posts concerning her former instructor; another young woman has come forward accusing him of abusing her when she was his student. Strane calls Vanessa, and while it seems they've maintained contact over the years, it's clear that his purpose is to make sure Vanessa has no intention of backing the woman's story. It's also apparent that while Vanessa's life is a mess—dead-end job, meaningless one-night stands with strangers and self-medication with drugs and alcohol—she is still in love with Strane and thinks he's done no wrong. As more women turn up with similar claims, Vanessa comes under increasing pressure to tell her story.

Alternating with the present timeline is Vanessa's account of meeting Strane as a teenager and how they eventually become intimate. 15-year-old Vanessa is immediately entranced by her teacher, and she deliberately goes out of her way to make herself attractive to him. It's clear to readers how she might think she's the instigator of what she considers to be a romance, but as she describes how the two become close, we can see how Strane is grooming her, even if the young Vanessa can't. This plotline tracks Vanessa as she ages into adulthood, with the thread eventually meeting up with the current Vanessa's timeline.

Russell's writing is stunning, bordering on poetic at times. Vanessa is first wooed with the works of Dickinson and Plath, and the character writes verse herself, so the lyrical nature of her observations feels right:

Winter makes everyone weary this year. The cold is relentless, nights dipping to twenty below, and when the temperature goes above zero, it snows – days and days of it. After each storm, the snow banks grow until campus becomes a walled maze under a pile of gray sky, and clothes that were new at Christmas quickly turn salt-stained and pilled as the reality of four more months of winter settles in.

The author goes beyond simply beautiful writing to completely get into the mind and soul of her character. During one encounter with Strane, Vanessa thinks to herself, "His worry is obvious, about me and what we're doing. The smallest movement makes him jump, like I'm an animal prone to bolt or bite."

There are ample risks in penning a first-person narrative, particularly when the story concerns a character at two radically different ages; the protagonist's voice may end up being too similar throughout, their perspective can become one-dimensional and young characters may come off as being too mature for their supposed ages. Russell expertly dodges these traps, creating a character who isn't necessarily likeable all the time but is convincing.

Readers should be aware that the subject matter is without doubt disturbing. Strane's manipulation of Vanessa (both as a child and an adult) is unsettling, as is Vanessa's inability to see the harm he's causing her. The sex scenes between the two are also fairly explicit, adding to the disconcerting feeling some may experience when reading these pages. While the book may be a good object lesson for late teens, its graphic nature makes it more appropriate for an older audience.

My Dark Vanessa raises a number of complex questions: Is someone a victim of abuse if they believe they were complicit? What responsibility do people have to broadcast their painful experiences if doing so may prevent others from harm? What responsibilities do abusers have toward their victims when their actions have colored every aspect of their victims' futures? What does justice look like in these cases? Russell offers these and other conundrums up for discussion without answers; it's up to each reader to ponder them.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2020, and has been updated for the February 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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